France says U.S. must give EU firms guarantees on Iran sanctions

PARIS (Reuters) - The United States must deliver concrete guarantees that European firms will not be penalized for trading with Iran should sanctions on Tehran be re-imposed, France’s foreign minister said on Tuesday.

The lifting of sanctions imposed on Iran by the West could begin in the first quarter of 2016 if Iran meets its obligations under a deal struck with major powers in July which is designed to stop it acquiring nuclear weapons.

Western firms have sought to renew commercial ties with Tehran in light of the deal, but last month Washington cautioned against rushing to invest in Iran until it fully complies.

French firms, once very active in Iran, were among those to have faced heavy penalties for violating sanctions.

“The attitude of the Americans is cooperative, but now we want that to be turned into something concrete so that the same thing doesn’t happen again,” Fabius told lawmakers ahead of next week’s visit by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to France.

BNP Paribas was fined almost $9 billion in 2014 for transactions violating U.S. embargoes. This week, Deutsche Bank paid a $258 million penalty to settle charges that it did business on behalf of entities in U.S.-sanctioned countries like Iran and Syria.

Fabius said that since the nuclear talks, two missions with French, British and German representatives had visited the United States to discuss the issue.

The minister said his visit to Iran and that of a delegation of French business lobby group Medef had aimed to nurture ties and prospective contracts, but for those to move ahead companies would need financing from French banks.

Immediately after the nuclear deal U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had pledged that the U.S. authorities would ensure European firms would not be subject to penalties once sanctions had lifted.

But diplomats and executives say firms also want guarantees from the United States that they would be safe if sanctions were re-imposed. Without such assurances, businesses would remain prudent before committing themselves, they said.

Iran is counting on an end to sanctions to boost its battered economy, particularly its oil and gas sector that has suffered heavily.

Reporting By John Irish; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky