If SWIFT is headquartered in Europe, why does the EU need to create a SWIFT alternative to be able to do transactions with Iran? It seems that the U.S. has significant control over SWIFT although there doesn't seem to be a voting process whereby the Americans can exert influence in a formal way.


In September 2018 the European Union foreign policy head, Federica Mogherini, proposed the development of a new "special purpose financial vehicle" intended to bypass SWIFT. The seven founding members of this new system are to be Iran, the European Commission, Germany, France, the UK, Russia and China – but not the United States.

The question is how this is possible and what sort of political factors allowed the Americans to have such a big control over a non-U.S financial system?

  • Lots of organisations such as Opec are headquartered in Europe but not under the control of Europe.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 19, 2023 at 9:48

2 Answers 2


Per the official SWIFT website, SWIFT voluntarily complies with all legal sanctions and regulations: SWIFT

SWIFT is an international society which is owned by every financial institution connected to the network (thousands of banks around the world). The SWIFT network essentially just provides messaging for financial institutions to make payments between banks very fast.

It would be completely untenable for SWIFT as an institution to refuse to comply with US sanctions, as that would open up all of its member institutions to actions by the US government. As many of these institutions operate in the US, they would be at risk of seizure of assets and freezing of transactions within the US.

Obviously, that is not a situation that any of these companies want.

To impose the SWIFT sanctions on Iran, they just cut off the Iranian banks from the SWIFT network, essentially severing the Iranian financial system from the rest of the world.

In order to work around this, Europe is trying to set up a separate, special financial transaction system which would connect European banks and firms with Iranian ones. Of course, the same risks apply to this new vehicle, and any firms that participate in violation of US sanctions are risking their economic interests within the United States. Not surprisingly, a lot of firms are opting to stay away from it, even though it exists.

  • 2
    You link to a website that doesn't say what you say it says. It even has a section specifically about Iranian sanctions this year, which ... doesn't say what you say it says in your first paragraph. It talks about obeying Belgian law for sanctions. Then it says something very specific about the current Iranian situation, which isn't at all "we voluntarily comply with all legal sanctions and regulations"
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 18:29
  • 1
    @Yaak that was about an EU law passed in 2012. See under the heading "Does SWIFT comply with all sanctions laws?" where it states that they DO comply with all legal sanctions, and the last paragraph under "Does SWIFT expel banks" where the current Iranian situation is explained.
    – user23920
    Commented Jul 16, 2019 at 19:48

First, just to be clear, SWIFT is an international institution that facilitates the clearing of wire transfers of money in international transactions between banks in much the same way that the Federal Reserve does when there are wire transfers between U.S. banks within the United States.

Like the Federal Reserve it is something of a public-private partnership, that is neither purely governmental, nor purely a for profit private company.

The question is how this is possible and what sort of political factors allowed the Americans to have such a big control over a non-U.S financial system?

It isn't really accurate to call SWIFT a "European" or "non-U.S. financial system." The U.S. has been part of the system since 1979 (just four years after it was established), and is home to one of four data processing centers that serve as the hubs of the network.

The legal foundation of SWIFT amounts to a multi-lateral treaty to which the U.S., many other nations, and a private company are parties, and Iran is not a party. So, its policies are to a great extent required to be acceptable to the nations that use its services.

Usually this isn't a big deal because most of its policies are technocratic details on matters like software standards, routing number formats, determining the exact minute at which a transaction clears and determining at what point in a transaction it can be undone for fraud.

People who want to transfer money to Iran electronically from a non-Iranian bank to an Iranian one, or visa versa, therefore, need to do so through an institution other than SWIFT. This is because Iran and its banks are not currently eligible to participate SWIFT, and because the U.S. would not agree to allow Iran to join if it sought to do so.

The U.S. has the practical (and probably also legal) ability to withdraw from its participation in SWIFT, and this means it can effectively veto any major policy changes it opposed. This is because it is absolutely necessary for the U.S. to be a willing participant for SWIFT to continue to operate, which is necessary for routine international commerce to be conducted. The volume of wire transfers between the U.S. and other SWIFT member nations is so great that an international payment clearing institution without U.S. participation would have only niche value, because the U.S. is such a large economy and such a major participant in international trade.

  • Banks have accounts at the Federal Reserve with real money in those accounts. I don't think SWIFT is remotely similar. Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 18:45
  • @user253751 SWIFT transfers real economic value between banks. It is a payment system. The Federal Reserve certainly does many things that SWIFT doesn't do. It is a central bank that manages the U.S. payment system and not just a payment system.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Aug 22, 2022 at 20:04
  • The U.S. may have the practical ability to withdraw from its participation in SWIFT, but it would not be able to withdraw from the UN system, at least not without sacrificing all its claims within the UN system. Which means that Special Drawing Rights (SDRs), specifically created to serve as an alternative for US Dollar settlement, could be utilized by SWIFT and must be accepted by the U.S., without an act of Congress to the contrary at least.
    – M. Y. Zuo
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 18:02

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