It’s not often that an article about a commodity manages to capture a moment in current events, the political and economic realities of the Middle East, and a case study in globalization. Without waxing too Tom Friedman, a simple story about Israeli marble dealers highlights the realities of trying to impose international sanctions in an increasingly globalized world.
The article by Noa Oron, which appeared in the Maariv Friday Business Supplement and translated from Hebrew to English by Didi Remez, outlines the process through which Iranian marble makes it way into Israel.
To make a long story short, marble is exported from Iranian quarries to Turkey where it is cut, re-labled, and exported to Israel. Of course, this import of Iranian marble is in violation of orders banning trade with Israeli enemies, such as Lebanon, Syria and Iran.
Last year, there was a similar diplomatic blip over pistachios involving many of the same issues. Israel, the world’s largest per capita consumer of pistachios, was getting the nuts — through Turkish re-labeling — from Iran, the world’s largest exporter.
On the marble issue, Danny Catarivas, head of the Division of Foreign Trade and International Relations in the Manufacturers Association of Israel, told Oron:
“The Americans can afford to do things that other can’t.” Catarivas explains that as a small country dependent on foreign trade, Israel needs to separate politics and economics and refrain from economic boycotts. “In the same way that we are outraged against attempts to boycott us, we’re the last ones that should support boycotts of any kind,” he adds.
Catarivas points out that it’s highly unlikely that the Iranian economy’s success or failure will hinge on the export of marble, but it turns out that Iranian marble exports are more than just another portion of Iran’s private sector economy.
Statistics provided by the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce show that marble imports to Israel have increased over the past three years, and marble imported from Turkey constitute over 60% of the imports. The scope of marble imports from Turkey in these years stood at over USD 22 million per year, on the average. It is impossible to know what percentage of marble originated in Iran, but in light of the popularity of the Gohare stone and other Iranian stones, we can presume that it is a considerable share. But the most troubling fact was supplied by a senior source in the marble sector: 90% of Gohare stone in Iran is owned by the Iranian government — meaning that the Iranian government is clipping the coupon from the trade with Israel.
All of this falls in line with the recent reports we’ve been hearing about how sanctions have led to growth in corruption and alternative trade partnerships. I’m sure Tom Friedman would say something about the world being flat, or something like that…