Iranian Exports Collapse Under U.S. Sanctions

A picture taken on March 12, 2017, shows an Iranian tanker and a South Korean (R) tanker docking at the platform of the oil facility in the Khark Island, on the shore of the Gulf. / AFP PHOTO / ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty

Iranian officials released economic data this week indicating oil exports are sharply down and U.S. sanctions have cut the export of products other than oil in half.

Radio Farda reviewed the numbers on Tuesday and found Iran’s exports were growing significantly before the second, much tougher round of U.S. sanctions took effect in November:

The country exported only $1.867 billion non-oil goods during November 21-December 22, less than half of Iran’s monthly average during the current fiscal year, which started on March 21, 2018.

The plunge in exports was partly due to a complete stoppage in ultra-light oil (gas condensate) sales, which Iran includes in non-oil export basket. The monthly gas condensate export has averaged at about $330 million, or only a seventh of the drop in total non-oil exports during November 21-December 22.

In the other world, U.S. oil-related sanctions also seriously impacted Iran’s non-oil exports as well. The U.S. also imposed financial sanctions on Iran in August, but the details of customs statistics does not show any meaningful change in the non-oil exports level during the August-November period.

During the first nine months of the fiscal year (FY), the country has exported about 5.6 million metric tons of gas condensate at $2.776 billion, which indicates a 50% decline year-on-year.

However, the country’s total non-oil exports during March 21-December 22 reached $33.36 billions, or 4.5% more than the same period in last FY.

Despite this growth, Iran has fulfilled less than 70% of its non-oil export target for the period.

Its non-fuel imports also declined 13.3% year-on-year to $32.62 billion.

The Radio Farda report included a necessary disclaimer that Iran does not officially publish details about its crude oil exports, but since even the countries granted waivers by the United States to purchase Iranian oil have significantly reduced their imports, a decline in export volume can be readily deduced.

It was widely feared – or, among oil executives and the heads of nations whose economies are driven by oil revenue, devoutly hoped – that knocking Iran out of the market with sanctions would cause oil prices to soar and supplies to become tight. That does not appear to be happening, as another Radio Farda report pointed out.

Analysts predicted continued oversupply from the astounding surge in U.S. production, reduced demand from the global economic slowdown, anxiety about the U.S.-China trade war, waivers granted to Iran’s largest customers, the failure of the OPEC cartel to arrange a production slowdown, and possibly President Donald Trump’s lobbying for lower oil prices will keep fuel relatively cheap in 2019.

“Overall, this is not a rosy picture for Iran, already suffering from deep economic crisis, compounded by U.S. sanctions, which have impacted the country’s banking ties with the world and its non-oil trade,” Radio Farda predicted.

The Iranian regime unsurprisingly chose to focus on the positive, with President Hassan Rouhani declaring on Wednesday morning, “The Islamic Republic of Iran will continue to export oil despite U.S. sanctions.”

“In the past 9 months, Iran’s trade balance has been positive due to the $750m non-oil exports, indicating that the activities of the economic executives and the private and public sectors have been successful,” Rouhani told his cabinet, delicately understating what happened in the last two of those months.

“Based on oil minister’s reports, Iran’s oil sales have been continuing just as it was expected, but there are some minor issues that are solvable and will be solved soon,” he claimed. No one looking at the actual data could possibly believe that, but Iranians will be required to believe it so their leaders can claim victory over the American quest to reduce its oil exports to zero.

The Syrian regime tried to cheer up its Iranian patrons this week by promising they will make a fortune from postwar reconstruction, a project in which Iranian bids will ostensibly be privileged.

On the other hand, officials in Tehran have probably noticed the United Arab Emirates just reopened its embassy in Damascus and its diplomats are reminding the Syrians about the extensive UAE investments made before the civil war blew up in 2011.

President Trump has been talking up the amount of money the UAE’s allies in Saudi Arabia are prepared to invest in Syrian reconstruction, to the consternation of Saudis who apparently cannot see the bountiful opportunities for lavish profit promised by Syrian officials. At the very least, sober money men in Tehran will have some doubts about Syrian reconstruction sparking an economic renaissance in Iran.

Iran’s best hope for weathering sanctions might lie with India, which is generally supportive of U.S. policy but has not disguised its hunger for more Iranian oil. India’s finance ministry kicked off the new year by announcing a massive retroactive tax break for crude oil imports from Iran. The move was a major step toward creating a durable financial infrastructure for working around U.S. sanctions to keep Iranian oil flowing into India, and will give Iran a trove of Indian currency to spend on imports and investment.

The New York Times last week dismissed Tehran’s happy talk about the economy and lamented the devastating effect of sanctions on the Iranian middle class, which was already suffering from the absurd mismanagement of Rouhani’s regime, especially its habit of manipulating the currency to cover up economic shortfalls.

The Times quoted analysts who labored mightily to blame the travails of the Iranian middle class on President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the reimposition of sanctions, but the very same article makes it clear the Iranian government was already fiddling with the economy in a variety of disastrous ways to conceal the effects of corruption, political repression, foolish policies, and the squandering of Iran’s windfall from the nuclear deal on foreign adventures.

Rouhani is trying to reassert control and tamp down public unrest with a new budget that spends more on domestic priorities, but he could easily have done that during the Obama years when lucrative foreign deals and literal pallets of cash were falling into his lap. If Tehran is truly changing and turning its focus inward, it is only because the crushing effect of sanctions forced a major re-evaluation of policy. There is little evidence that any sort of political liberalization flowed from the nuclear deal boom and a great deal of evidence to the contrary.

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