“It’s all about the documents,” says Sajad, a manager of an Iranian shipping firm. “Iran is in the printing business now.” He is referring to the lengths to which Iranian companies go to circumvent sanctions. In this case, the documents are faked to make Iranian oil look as if it came from Iraq. Iraq exports a lot of oil through Iran by lorry. Iranians who handle Iraqi documents can easily copy and reuse them.
The past 15 months have been grim for Iranian businesses which trade with the outside world. America has tightened sanctions against Iran’s financial system; the European Union has put an embargo on its oil; and international traders are wary of dealing with the country.
But Iranian businesses are used to fighting for survival. The Islamic Republic has faced sanctions of one sort or another since its creation in 1979. Parts for Iran’s ageing civilian airliners trickle in from the black market. A host of sanctioned products, from industrial chemicals to anti-aircraft missiles, come from China. Almost any good can be found in Iran, at a price.
Amir, a manager in a mining business, says he regularly meets British and German suppliers in Turkey, to obtain the most advanced equipment to tap Iran’s mineral wealth. “Foreign firms are terrified of doing something illegal, but in the end they are businessmen,” he says. “The Europeans send our cargoes to Dubai, documented as the final destination. From there we are in charge.” Amir uses Gulf middlemen to change the documents, for a fee of 3-5%, before the goods are shipped to Bandar Abbas, Iran’s largest port.
Because few international banks deal with sanctioned Iranian institutions, Iranian importers have to find roundabout ways of paying suppliers. Amir uses a network of Iranian go-betweens who own companies in South Africa and Malaysia to pay his suppliers’ Western banks. He says 30% of his revenues are spent on avoiding sanctions — not counting the time involved.
The sanctions have hit Iran’s oil industry the hardest. Iran’s government depends on oil for more than half of its revenue, but exports have fallen and grown more volatile. The country’s total production is a quarter less than the 3.6m barrels per day it pumped in 2011.
One way of keeping sales going is to dress up Iranian oil as Iraqi. Another trick is to move Iranian oil onto foreign tankers on the open sea. Once crews have switched off their ships’ tracking beacons, this is all but undetectable. The oil is sold at a discount. Fujairah, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a big market for Iranian oil. Business is down, says Sajad, but European firms still trade with Iran, using Swiss subsidiaries which broker deals with the Iranians and collect the crude using tankers under the flag of a third country.
The sanctions have been a fillip for the few institutions still handling Iranian money. One foreign bank charges 5% on cash moving in or out of Iran, says an Iranian shipping source. Normal business rates are a fraction of a percent, but Iranian firms have little choice.
Sometimes the fear of sanctions is more effective than the sanctions themselves. A customer in the UAE owed $1.3m to Sajad’s shipping firm but would only send it in costly small installments. Sajad flew to the Gulf to pick up the balance in cash. “I was nervous about what I would say to customs from either country if they checked my suitcase,” he says. “I decided I would tell the truth. I am not a criminal.” But no one did.
London Economist.com in English 30 Mar 13