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LONDON (Reuters) - Western insurers are slowly reaching deals with Iran as they seek to re-enter a multi-billion dollar market although the pace of business is hampered by banking restrictions ten months on from the lifting of international sanctions.
Shut out of international financial markets for years, Iran is still trying to reap the benefits of last year's nuclear deal with world powers.
Despite the removal of international banking restrictions in January, Tehran has secured ties with only a limited number of smaller banks as U.S. sanctions remain in force.
By contrast, Iran is in more active talks with insurers to provide cover in a market valued at $9 billion overall last year and potentially double that in the next decade.
Western companies need insurance in order to resume business with Iran. Shipping and trade credit insurance, which remove the risk of non-payment for goods, are the first types of insurance being offered.
"There is generally a lower degree of fear and apprehension and that is because you have not had the big fines on the insurers that the banks have faced," said leading London sanctions lawyer Nigel Kushner.
"We are going to see greater and quicker movement there than on the banking side, at least in London and the UK," said Kushner, who is also a director of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce.
As Iran has aimed to ramp up oil exports, securing marine insurance has been crucial. Top tier Western ship insurers have started offering services in recent months.
Iran's deputy oil minister, Amir Hossein Zamaninia, has said European insurers now have no problems insuring Iranian oil tankers, according to the oil ministry's news agency SHANA.
Protection and Indemnity (P&I) clubs - marine insurers owned by shipping firms - have started to provide cover for Iran's shipping fleet, including its oil tankers.
Jonathan Andrews, director and head of eastern underwriting with Britain's Steamship Mutual, said it was insuring ships for Iranian tanker operator NITC and also for Iranian cargo ship operator IRISL.
"We have a long history of insuring Iranian ship owners," Andrews told Reuters. "We are happy to be insuring our former members again."
Norwegian ship insurer Skuld said it was in discussions with IRISL, while it was already insuring NITC ships.
Others such as the UK's Standard Club said they were covering vessels trading to and from Iran, but did not say whether this related to Iranian shipping firms.
Ship insurers say there are still constraints on payments, given a freeze on using the U.S. financial system.
"Problems remain however in relation to the channeling of payments through the banking systems, both in relation to collection of premium and settlement of claims," said Andrew Bardot, executive officer with the International Group, which represents ship insurers.
This was due to the reluctance of many banks and financial institutions to process such payments, and was now the main concern for insurers and reinsurers, he said.
"Solutions are being found, but it is a difficult process and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future."
U.S. banks are forbidden to do business with Iran under domestic sanctions still in force. European banks also face problems, since transactions with Iran in dollars cannot be processed through the U.S. financial system.
Banks remain nervous after some heavy U.S. penalties, including a $9 billion fine on France's BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA) in 2014, largely for violating U.S. financial sanctions.
Despite this, European export credit agencies are guaranteeing trade finance for Western companies doing business with Iran.
Germany's state run export credit group Hermes has concluded trade finance deals covering goods worth several million euros.
"About a dozen transactions have been approved so far," a Hermes spokesman said.
"The demand is there from the exporters' side but they need a lot of information. There is a continuous and rising flow of applications (for export credit guarantees)."
Italian export credit agency SACE has also undertaken its first small transactions with Iran.
"The lingering risks should not be underestimated, however, as they might create problems ... legal, documentary, operational, for companies interested in building or restoring commercial or financial relationships with local counterparties," a SACE spokesman said.
France's Coface has signed an agreement with Iran to guarantee trade finance on behalf of the French government. Nevertheless, major transactions were yet to be concluded due to the banking issues.
Aviation and energy are two sectors in focus, industry executives say, along with political risk cover, even if there have been few deals so far.
Christian Bieri, EMEA reinsurance head at insurance group MS Amlin, said Iran was "very much under discussion".
"It’s very high up the agenda," Bieri said. "It's going to be something for 2017."
Other large insurers and reinsurers such as Hannover Re (HNRGn.DE) are looking closely at Iran, but say concerns about payments still prevent them from doing business there.
Swiss Re (SRENH.S) chief executive Christian Mumenthaler told Reuters: "We have big business in the U.S. and so our chief legal officer is basically regulating every micro-step we do in that direction."
Lloyd's of London had historically been active in Iran and chairman John Nelson said it was a "market we would like to get back into".
"We have to just be clear, the U.S. sanctions are still very restrictive," Nelson told Reuters.
Additional reporting by Jonathan Gould in Frankfurt, Maya Nikolaeva in Paris and Oleg Vukmanovic in Milan; editing by Giles Elgood