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Iran claims $100 billion now freed in major step as sanctions roll back

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks to reporters in Paris last Thursday as part of a European trip to seek foreign investment. (Christophe Morin/Bloomberg)

Iran announced Monday two financial milestones as the country emerges from under sanctions, saying it has access to more than $100 billion in previously frozen assets and has rejoined an important international banking network.

The statements follow more than $30 billion in potential business deals unveiled with France and Italy last week during a trip by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose government has strongly courted foreign investors after sanctions were lifted last month as part of an accord with world powers to rein in Tehran's nuclear program.

The deal-making — including plans for Airbus passenger jet sales and partnerships with French automaker Peugeot-Citröen — highlighted the interest among many foreign companies in Europe and Asia for quick re-entry into Iran’s large consumer market.

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American firms, meanwhile, have been far more cautious in exploring potential opportunities in Iran. After the nuclear deal, the Obama administration imposed separate sanctions in protest of Iranian ballistic missile tests.

Iran’s government spokesman, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, said more than $100 billion has been “fully released” and available for Iranian use, according to comments on the website of state-run Press TV.

The bulk of the funds, he said, was held in banks in Asia, including China and India, as well as Turkey. Many of the countries received waivers to purchase Iranian oil and gas during the sanctions, but placed the payments in escrow-style accounts that remained off-limits to Iran.

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The Iranian statements gave no indication of overall plans for the newly released money, but the spokesman noted that some will be used by Iran’s national development fund to buy goods overseas.

Some opponents of the nuclear deal in the United States and elsewhere have raised concerns that the freed assets — possibly up to $150 billion in total by some estimates — could go to Iranian-linked militant groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency said the country also was reintegrating with an international banking network known as SWIFT, which handles a huge volume of cross-border transfers. Rejoining the Belgium-based network would be a major boost for foreign firms seeking to return to the Iranian market.

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