Panic in Tehran

The Iranian rial has been in free fall for the last few days. Inflation has been ramping up for the last few months as the rial has lost more than 50 percent of its value over the last year. Unemployment is up to maybe 25 percent plus, and quite a bit higher in some of the poorer parts of the country.

Iran’s oil exports have been slammed by sanctions. Even with Iran’s attempts to sneak some out in various ways, such as registering tankers in Mongolia of all places; the sanctions hunters found out about that one fairly quickly and shut it down with some diplomatic moves in Ulan Baator.

Then there is the purchase of 2 million barrels of stranded oil in Sid Krir in Egypt that the Egyptian government wants to purchase. US-Egyptian relations are not exactly the best these days and President Morsi visited Tehran recently. He might have embarrassed his host by mentioning his views on Syria, but he still went. Egypt also looks like it might be working towards improving relations with Iran. Turkey may be buying some oil from Iran with gold or other barter methods. Other states may be setting grain and goods for oil barter arrangements.

The financial system of Iran has been hit hard with the sanctions. The closing down of Iran’s access to the SWIFT system was significant. This may have done more damage to Iran’s ability to do business internationally than many of the other sanctions combined. The sanctions focused on persons and banks are good politics, but have historically not been that effective. Closing the country from a major clearing house is like slamming a large financial door in their faces.

Indeed, Iran is in a tight spot. I would expect runs on banks to follow on to this if the government cannot stem the flow of the psychology of financial contagion that seems to be sweeping the country. The government is clearly in a panic. They are blaming the usual “outside forces” and “22 conspirators” who of course were arrested quite publicly today. Then they blamed the black market money changers in the bazaars of Tehran for the collapse. This last one makes less than no sense. The bazaaris do not exchange enough money to make this sort of a dent in the US dollar-Iranian rial exchange rate. The currency drop has a lot more to do with hyper-expansive monetary policy pushing inflation. There is clearly a sense that there are way too many rials chasing at a faster velocity the goods that are in stock and are flowing into Iran. See this article for some supporting monetary and other data.

The huge rise in the stock market of Tehran is also due to nominal reasons, as we economists would like to say in such circumstances. The money flowing into the economy via the policies of the Central Bank of Iran has pumped up not only the prices of goods, but also stocks. This huge increase in money supply has also pumped up the price of land and housing in Iran. Also driving the stock, land and housing costs is the shortage of alternative investments. Sanctions have taken a bit out of the Iranian economy on that account.

Iran’s economic policies have actually magnified, not countered, the effects of the sanctions. One of the major culprits was expanding the broad money supply by 100 percent in the last 5 years.

This said, what is happening now shows not only the results of sanctions but counterproductive economic policies and more. The current economic status of Iran also shows how the credibility of the regime is weakening.

I am certain that there are many people in Iran who are questioning the worth of the country’s nuclear program and especially the leadership’s global defiance on this issue in light of the growing resulting problems they’re facing.

Developing about 90 percent of the entire nuclear fuel cycle is very expensive. This could have been costing Iran about 10 percent or more of its GDP for many years. That is 10 percent that could have been invested in industries that produce jobs, agriculture, education, and more.

Expansive nuclear infrastructure development is not necessary given the existence of global trade in low enriched uranium for nuclear plants. It is also unnecessary given the small amount of raw uranium that exists in Iran. This is also counter-intuitive given that Iran flares off the equivalent of four nuclear power plants of 1200 MW each of natural gas.

There are many reasons why Iran’s government should focus on its economy and its people, rather than on defiant nuclear brinksmanship.

The Iranian leadership may find that their brinkmanship is about to bring their country to the brink.


Paul Sullivan

Paul Sullivan is an internationally recognized expert on security issues including energy security, water security and food security in the Middle East and North Africa. He is an economist by training and a multidisciplinary public intellectual by choice. He is an Adjunct Professor of Security Studies at Georgetown University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Future Global Resources Threats at the Federation of American Scientists.


One Comment

  1. If the sanctions has the effect that it weans Iran’s economy from the oil revenues so much the better. The black gold, oil, has been the curse of oil-rich middle east nations. Iran and other countries have plundered opportunity to develop industries and other sources of income. Iran is dependent on oil income to feed its population. It has been vulnerable and will be vulnerable down the road even if it compromises on nuclear issues right now and gets some reprieve – it that is even feasible.
    Alternatively, Iran should declare an emergency, and pool all its resources to survive. Part of the emergency plan should be to reduce dependence on oil income. Iran will be poor for now, but will benefit immensely in future. Real independence will come – a country which depends on oil to feed its populace is only nominally independent.

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