The unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian gold and dollar deposits in American banks and branches is one of the conditions involved in release of the U.S. hostages, the governor of Iran's central bank said in Tehran yesterday in a telephone interview.
That remark by Ali Reza Nobari, Iran's top banker and a close political associate of President Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr, was the first public suggestion that a settlement of the 103-day crisis may have to include a plan for ending the freeze that President Carter ordered Nov. 14.
While the Carter administration has the power to lift the freeze quickly, such a step would not necessarily release the money to the Iranians.
Banking sources said in New York this week that it would still leave unsettled the growing mountain of court suits by U.S. banks and corporations that have been scrambling after the blocked funds to cover outstanding loans and lost assets in Iran.
Adding to the difficulty in resuming economic relations are charges by the Iranian revolutionary government that U.S. banks, particularly Chase Manhattan Bank of New York and its former chairman, David Rockefeller, where close to Shah Mohammad Resa Pahlavi and his family and participated in the "plundering" of the nation's oil wealth.
The president's decision to block Iranian government holdings in U.S. banks and their branches abroad disrupted a complex financial system by which Iran funneled $50 million a day in oil revenues into American, European and Japanese banks.
For the Iranians, the lifting of the freeze is crucial, because the blocking of assets has made the purchase of goods, technology, food and services from outside the country more difficult.
The freeze order was a response, short of outright military retaliation, to the extreme pressures in this country for strong action to counter the seizure of the hostages and to deter Iran from carrying out threats to withdraw its funds from American banks.
Though politically popular at the time, the blocking of funds has had far-reaching impact on the world's banking system. It has led to more than 100 individual lawsuits by U.S. banks and corporations seeking to protect themselves.
And it has caused a sharp split between some of the giant western banks that dominate the world's financial system.
"Putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again is going to be difficult," one senior Treasury Department official commented.
Officially, he said the U.S. government had no comment on the Nobari statement. Privately, a government source acknowledged that "a negotiation will occur" over removal of the freeze, but he declined to discuss "sensitive" details of any such effort.
In concentrating their attacks on Chase, Iranian officials have cited the well-publicized close friendship of Rockefeller with the deposed shah. This friendship is credited by U.S. bankers as being instrumental in making Chase the leading depository of Iranian oil income after the oil price increases of 1973-74.
After the revolutionary government took over a year ago, the National Iranian Oil Co. began placing more of its deposits with other U.S. banks, notably the Bank of America's London branch.
In the telephone interview yesterday, Iran's Nobari indicated that even before the freeze he had planned to eliminate the use of Chase as a depository for Iranian funds.
Records provided by Chase in connection with a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New York show that Nobari's central bank of Iran (Bank Markazi) still had $253 million on deposit in a "call account" with Chase's London branch on Nov. 14, the day of the freeze.
Chase's formerly dominant financial role in Iran is documented in an assortment of court papers in New York City.
Beginning in 1973, as petroleum prices escalated and Iran's oil export earnings soared, increasingly large volumes of Iranian dollars flowed through Chase's facilities, according to affidavits filed by Alan M. Delsman, vice president of Chase's international department, in connection with a pending lawsuit.
According to Delsman, some $15 billion passed through the Iranian central bank's operating account at Chase in New York City between April 1977 and November 1979.
He said the relationship between the central bank's accounts at Chase were "closely tied to the National Iranian Oil Co.'s accounts at Chase."
The court documents describe how huge receipts from Iran's oil sales to the United States moved from U.S. oil companies' bank accounts to the National Iranian Oil Co.'s accounts in New York City, and then to the Iranian central bank's account there, and finally to an interest-bearing "call account" in London. Throughout this process, much of the money stayed in Chase and simply moved from one account to another.
Even after the shah left, from February to August, 1979, it took time for the new regime to alter this system. According to the affidavits, $6 billion went from the Iranian oil company's account to the central bank's account in Chase.
Gradually, however, the Chase role diminished, and by the fall of 1979 its National Iranian Oil Co.'s accounts were almost depleted, according to its own affidavits.
After the shah left Iran, there was political and economic chaos in the country. Billions of dollars of defense contracts were terminated, and vast construction projects were halted.
It was at this late stage that the U.S. government and U.S. commercial banking interests began devising strategies to protect their loans and their property in Iran.
Thus, before the seizure of the hostages, U.S. Treasury Department officials had discussed the possibilities of a freeze of Iranian assets, and banks had called in their lawyers to assess their loans to Iranian borrowers.
In 1976, 1977 and 1978, international banks, with U.S. institutions in the lead, extended $3.8 billion in credits to the Iranian government and private borrowers for development of pipelines, textile plants, petrochemical factories and other facilities.
The banks were eager for the business because Iran's oil provided a guarantee of payment.
The loan at the core of a major controversy is a January 1977 $500-million, seven-year credit to the Iranian government. This loan, managed by Chase and extended by a syndicate of 11 European and American banks, came at a time when the shah's ambitious military and other spending programs had outrun the oil income.
The controversy over Chase's management of this loan dates to Nov. 5, 1979, the day after the hostages were seized at the American Embassy.
Despite the turmoil on the streets, the Iranian central bank dispatched a business-as-usual cable to Chase, ordering it to use $4,052,951.39 in an account in London to pay an installment on the $500 million loan due on Nov. 15.
In the ensuing week, tempers rose in the United States, and frustration mounted as Americans viewed the seemingly inability of the president to take action.
On Nov. 14, then-foreign minister Bani-Sadr added to the tensions in the banking community by telling a news conference in Tehran that Iran would be justified in withdrawing all its funds from U.S. banks.
Treasury Department officials, alerted to the Iranian's remarks, hurried to work at 4 a.m. that morning, and put the final touches on an already prepared plan to freeze Iranian assets. At 8.10 a.m. the president signed the freeze order.
"We acted knowing it would have adverse side-effects, but there was literally nothing else to do," a Treasury official said.
Because most of the U.S.-held Iranian funds was in London branches drawing interest, the freeze order was extended to foreign branches as well, a step that drew strong protests from European banks.
The government also authorized the U.S. banks to apply this overseas Iranian money to any unpaid loans by its overseas branches, a step described by a top New York banker this week as unexpected and unprecedented.
One Treasury Department official acknowledged this was done because it seemed highly doubtful that British and French courts would sustain the administration's seizure of the assets abroad.
For Chase, this proviso was advantageous, since, at that time, its loans to Iran totaled $366 million, while its New York deposits where $39 million. tA total of $253 million was at Chase's bank in London.
With the freeze order in place, Chase notified the Iranian central bank by cable that it was "unable to comply with the request" to apply British funds to the loan payment due that day "because of the blocking order."
Four days later Chase notified other members of the 11-bank syndicate that the central bank was in default. This set off a default on the entire $500 million loan.
Under the domino system that governs the international banking fraternity, this default in turn set off a chain reaction of bank defaults against other outstanding Iranian loans.
This situation has contributed to the rush of lenders and corporations seeking to protect their financial stakes.
However, the controversy over Chase's action lingers.
Treasury officials, justifying the default action, say that the Iranians were offered, and refused, the opportunity to bring new Iranian money into the United States to cover the loan installment that had been due at Chase at 10 a.m. Nov. 15.
But U.S. laywers for the Iranian central bank charge that Chase could have used other Iranian accounts to pay the installment.
And two Swiss banks in the 11-bank syndicate, the Union Bank and Swiss Bank Corp., strongly criticized Chase's handling of the default on grounds that it set a disastrous precedent for the international banking system.