Iran’s currency begins to shrug off Trump’s ‘battle rial’

Bourse & Bazar – Over the last 18 months, the Iranian rial has lost nearly 70 percent of its value, hammered by the Trump administration’s decision to reimpose secondary sanctions on Iran in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

A darkening economic outlook and rising inflation led Iranians to rush to exchange bureaus in order to purchase dollars, considered a safe-haven asset. Iranian companies struggled, or in some cases refused, to repatriate their foreign currency earnings, constraining supply in the foreign exchange market and leaving the market vulnerable to shocks.

Each time the Trump administration announced a new aspect of its maximum pressure campaign; the value of the rial would fluctuate. When the Trump administration took the dramatic step of targeting the IRGC under a new terrorist designation, the rial lost 4 percent of its value in just a few hours.

But there is a growing sense in Tehran that the currency market may have stabilized. When two oil tankers were attacked in the Sea of Oman on June 13—attacks widely attributed to Iran—the United States vowed a forceful response. But there was surprisingly little movement in the value of the rial.

Two weeks later, when the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down a US spy drone near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, ordinary Iranians and currency speculators again braced themselves for a free-fall in the rial’s value. But the foreign exchange market barely moved—even after news broke that the US had been minutes from executing a retaliatory strike.

That the rial has strengthened about 13 percent since the first week of May, corresponding to a period in which the United States revoked waivers permitting purchases of Iranian oil and in which Iran announced it would begin loosening its compliance with the JCPOA, has led some economic commentators in Iran to conjecture that the Iran’s foreign exchange market has developed an immunity to the escalating political tensions. The rial may be shrugging off the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign.

One possible explanation for the newfound stability in Iran’s currency markets is that while the Trump administration has nearly maxed-out its own maximum pressure sanctions campaign, the Central Bank of Iran has only recently begun to assert its control over the foreign exchange market. Late last month, Abdolnasser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s central bank, struck a confident tone in an interview with state broadcaster IRIB, stating, “I promise to strengthen the value of the national currency—the situation is improving, the recovery can be felt.”

To defend the rial, the Central Bank has made several interventions. It has implemented a central marketplace to increase transparency and reduce arbitrage in Iran’s foreign exchange market. The Integrated Foreign Exchange Deals System, known by its Persian acronym, NIMA, has improved the reliability with which Iranian importers in need of foreign exchange can purchase currency at a rate slightly lower than the free market rate. Iranian exporters are required to sell their foreign exchange earnings through the NIMA system, ensuring that vital foreign exchange are not sold to currency speculators on the free market. Additionally, the central bank has for the first time engaged in open market operations, in an attempt to try and slow the inflation that has fed demand for foreign exchange.

While some of the stabilization is likely attributable to these interventions, it is also possible that the rial has stabilized due to the fact that the current exchange rate better reflects the relative purchasing power of the rial and the dollar. The rial had long been kept artificially strong by the Iranian government.

Looking at the demand side, it may be the case that the Iranian public has been inured to the economic uncertainty brought about by the reimposed US sanctions or that there is greater confidence in the management of the foreign exchange market by authorities. In both cases, individuals and companies are less inclined to flock to the dollar as a safe-haven asset, even if Iran’s general economic malaise—marked by high unemployment—persists.

The stability of the currency is all the more remarkable as the Trump administration drives down Iran’s oil exports. The revocation of waivers covering imports of Iranian crude has left China and Syria as Iran’s sole customers. Iran’s oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, has insisted that Iran has the means to get its oil to global markets, though it is clear that exports have fallen sharply. While the Trump administration has crowed that reduced oil sales deprive Iran of vital foreign currency, it is worth considering that under the waiver system that governed Iran’s oil exports for much of the last decade, Iran had a limited ability to repatriate its foreign currency earnings. In that sense the current circumstances are not new.

There remain measures that the Trump administration can pursue to try and spur a new devaluation episode in Iran. Reports that the White House may finalize the designation of Iran as a “primary money laundering concern,” a move that could cut the country’s few remaining correspondent banking links, reflect one such measure. But for now, as economist Djavad Salehi-Esfahani has recently written, “Fears of ‘Venezuelaization’ of the Iranian economy (collapse) have subsided, allowing the government to revive its long neglected public investment program, which could boost employment and production.” The Iranian public, made weary by a year of economic hardship, will certainly hope that the stabilization of the currency is the first step to a broader recovery.