Dubai: Iran’s banks have been able to bypass a ban imposed last year on carrying out global financial transactions via the world’s most-used electronic payment system, known as SWIFT, according to officials at the Belgium-based company which runs the system.

They said that Iranian banks have been able to fall back on simpler methods for executing transactions with their international counterparts, sending instructions instead by telephone or email.

“It’s very clear that the Iranians have other means (of) moving their money around and commissioning transactions,” said Alain Raes, chief executive for EMEA and Asia Pacific at the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT.

The European firm was forced last March to disconnect around 30 Iranian banks, including the country’s central bank, from its network following a European Union ban on dealing with the institutions. Iran has faced progressively tougher sanctions from the US and the EU, in order to pressure the country to curb its nuclear programme. Iran denies it is planning to produce nuclear weapons.

SWIFT, which is supervised by the central banks of the G-10, as well as Belgium’s central bank, facilitates the flow of most electronic financial transactions. Almost all major banks and finance firms use it to send financial data and messages, making it akin to a globally-accepted postal service for financial transactions.

“Of course there are alternatives: you can send your payment instructions by email if you will, or can do it by telephone, though its not as secure as SWIFT and lacks the convenience factor. But, yes, there are lots of alternatives to SWIFT,” said Gottfried Leibbrandt, the company’s chief executive. He and Raes spoke on the sidelines of a SWIFT press conference in Dubai.

Leibbrandt said there are still talks between his company and European regulators about whether it’s appropriate for SWIFT to be required to impose sanctions on countries like Iran. “There is a dialogue going on around the trade-off between using us as a sanctions tool for other countries and impeding our role as really serving as a global infrastructure mechanism,” he said.

“We’ve seen reversals in Myanmar where banks were able to trade again. There is always a chance for a reversal if the reasons for the imposition of sanctions on affected banks are resolved,” Leibbrandt said.

Despite the limited effect of the SWIFT ban on Iran, the country has been badly affected by the slump in oil exports and the refusal of many international banks to deal with Iran as a result of international sanctions. That has triggered a sharp drop in the Iranian currency, and forced Iran to cut back on imports. In August, Iran slapped a ban on the imports of 2,000 luxury items, including mobile phones, laptops and cars, in an effort to conserve foreign currency.

Leibbrandt also downplayed the impact of the Iran sanctions on his company. He said that before the sanctions were imposed, the volume of Iranian transactions via SWIFT amounted to less than 1 per cent of the total. “Most of the targeted [Iranian banks] weren’t very active internationally. In terms of [the ban] impact on the business, Iran isn’t a big part of our business,” he said.

SWIFT made around €600 million (Dh2.94 billion) in revenues last year.