Major banking industry officials believe there is little possibility that the new Khomeini government in Iran will refuse to repay its foreign loans.
Bankers are concerned the change in regimes may force delays in repayment of the $2.2 billion Iran has borrowed from U.S. banks and the $3 to $4 billion more it has been loaned by other foreign banks.
But so far, despite months of political turmoil, Iran has remained up-to-date on its repayments, according to Citibank Executive Vice President Thomas C. Theobald.
Analysts say that Citibank and Chase Manhattan, the nations's second and third largest banks, each have loaned Iran more than $200 million, most of it since 1976 when the country began borrowing from international credit markets.
Some important aides to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose forces overthrew the government of Shapour Bakhtiar Sunday, have said that a new government might refuse to repay some Western loans.
Bankers say they think most of the debt repudiation talk has been rhetoric and note that many advisers to Khomeini have said publicly that such talk is nonsense.
While Islamic law prohibits payment of interest, and Khomeini says he wants to install an Islamic Republic, analysts note that other Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia have been able to reconcile interest and the law.
"Let's face it," one major banker said, "Iran is part of the global system. If it repudiated its debts, it would lose its access to the world banking system and starve its economy of needed development funds."
It was that sort of realization that forced Zaire several years ago "to change its tune" about refusing to pay Western debts. Zaire, however, like several others since, has had to "reschedule" its debt with big banks. That is bankers' parlance for changing the terms of a loan, usually by stretching out the repayment period.
Delays in repayments or rescheduling of debts, however, do cost banks money and hurt their earnings. But even a total repudiation of the $200 million or so that Iran owes Citibank, for example, would be less than that institution's $481.6 million in earnings last year. Chase, whose earnings were $197 million, would be harder hit by a total repudiation. But all banks carry reserves.
Clearly, however, in the unlikely event that Iran did refuse to repay most or all of its foreign debts, world financial institutions would be hurt.
But there has been no panic among bankers. Chase, which is agent for three large, multi-bank loans to Iran, has polled the lenders to see if they want to call in the loans. In all three cases the participating banks have said no.
According to a rough estimate by a New York firm that specializes in bank stocks, another five U.S. banks have loaned Iran between $100 and $200 million. Keefe, Bruyette & Woods said those banks are Chemical Bank, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. and Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. of New York; First National of Chicago and Bank of America in San Francisco.
Most loans to Iran are for development and have been made to government or quasi-government bodies for development purposes, bankers say.
"We think they'll (the Khomeini regime) look at the portfolio of loans . . . and see them as beneficial to the country," according to Hamilton Meserve, a Citibank vice president.
New York bankers say that Iranian deposits in foreign banks, both here and abroad, have been shrinking in recent months, but say there is no evidence that the country has been cleaning out its deposits to avoid having them seized for non-payment of loans.
"I'd guess they're shrinking because Iran is using the funds to service its debts," according to one major banker.
Officials at several major banks say that Iran has been more meticulous than usual in keeping its creditors informed of developments. The Iranian central bank, Bank Markasi, has faced strikes like most other government institutions during the last several months.
"We're getting cables saying that payments will be two or three days late. We don't even get concerned if they're going to be a few days late," said one official. "Somebody over there is going out of his way to make sure Iran's credit rating isn't tarnished."
But despite the bankers' confidence that Iran will not go the route of Cuba -- the only nation that did repudiate foreign debts -- banks have not been giving Iran new loans.
L. C. De Grijis, a senior vice president of Continental Illinois Bank & Trust, said that no new loans have been extended to Iran for several months, since the start of the severe anti-shah uprisings. And much of the short-term trade-related debt that was outstanding has been reduced, De Grijs said.
James H. Wooden, a vice president of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, said that even though Iran's oil revenues have ground to a halt, the country still has billions on deposit in foreign countries as well as nearly $12 billion in international reserves.
While most bankers say they doubt Iran would ever repudiate its debts, "There's still no sense of complacency about the Iranian situation. There's just no panic," said an officer of one large New York bank.
"Three or four years ago we might have been more concerned than we are today. We're getting a little used to foreign governments -- such as Zaire, Zambia, Peru, or the Sudan -- having problems with repayment," he said.
"We're also more sensitive to their problems than we were.
"But just as we have Penn Centrals or W.T. Grants, we have similar versions in foreign countries."