Iran's last-minute objections Monday to a plan for freeing the 52 American hostages were phony, according to officials of several of the dozen U.S. banks that transferred Iranian deposits as part of the final agreement.
They said that the ultimate transfer of nearly $8 billion in Iranian deposits and gold was accomplished early Tuesday morning under almost exactly the same terms that were set Sunday night, when the banks said they were ready to send Iran its assets.
By early Monday, bankers and goverment officials said, they thought a final deal had been struck with Iran, and the banks said they were merely awaiting instructions from the Iranian central bank to send the deposits and an order from President Carter allowing them to do so. Carter went on television to deliver that message.
But the instructions from Iran never came, and late Monday Iran's chief hostage negotiator Behzad Nabavi accused the dozen American banks involved in the negotiations of a last-minute "underhanded maneuver" that would have limited the amount of frozen bank deposits that banks would have to return to Iran.
One top U.S. banker involved in the four days of negotiations said the disagreement was basically a technical one that could have been resolved in minutes "if the Iranians wanted to do so." He said it concerned the exact wording of the order the Iranian central bank had to send to the U.S. banks to instruct them to ship Iranian deposits to a special escrow account in London.
"Since the assets in question were blocked by presidential order," the banker said, "the payment order had to be written carefully so that it would conform to the order the president would write to unblock them."
The bankers and their lawyers spent most of Sunday huddled in the law offices of Shearman & Sterling in New York City -- the firm that represents Citibank -- developing what bankers call the "payment mechanism" needed to allow the funds to be transferred legally.
"We were ready to go by Sunday evening," said the top international lending official at one of the 12 U.S. banks. But the orders from Iran never came. Then, after Nabavi raised his objections publicly at about 5 p.m. (EST) Monday, the bankers again returned to Shearman & Sterling offices while Iranian lawyers in London reworded the order to satisfy the Iranian objections.
"The ultimate payment order didn't change a hell of a lot," said another banker. "The Iranians had to be screwing around for political reasons. All that really changed was that the hostage departure was delayed a day."
The reworded payment order was received in New York early Tuesday morning, and U.S. bankers had no objections. Between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. Tuesday, the U.S. banks received their orders from Iran's central bank. By 5 a.m., the U.S. banks had transferred their Iranian deposits to the New York Federal Reserve, the official U.S. government bank.
A Federal Reserve spokesman said the Fed gathered all the deposits of the private banks and at 6:41 a.m. sent a telegram to the Bank of England telling the bank to place the deposits in a special holding account. The Bank of England confirmed the transfer two minutes later. The private U.S. banks transferred about $5.6 billion in deposits. The Fed shipped about $2.4 billion of official Iranian government reserves, including cash and 1.632 million ounces of gold.
When the hostages were safely out of Iran air space, the Bank of England put the contents of the holding account into a special escrow account controlled by the government of Algeria, which had functioned as the mediator in the hostage negotiations between the U.S. and Iranian governments.
About $3.7 billion of the deposits will flow back to U.S. banks to pay off loans made to the Iranian government, and another $1.5 billion or so will stay in special escrow accounts to cover other disputed loans between the U.S. banks and Iran as well as claims other U.S. institutions may have against Iran.
Bankers and government officials said they were surprised by the last-minute objections voiced by Iran Monday. However, they were aware there was some sort of delay, they said, because the Iranian central bank not only neglected to order the U.S. banks to transfer Iranian deposits but also failed to send the simple, technical instructions to the Bank of England to set up the escrow account that is controlled by Algeria.