What are the primary reasons that the Iranian rial has lost half of its value against the U.S. dollar in just one year? Iran’s currency was valued at about 10,000 rials to the dollar in the summer of 2011. It plummeted to more than 20,000 to the dollar in the summer of 2012.
Inflation in Iran’s economy has not been this bad since the end of the Iran-Iraq War or the economic crisis of the early 1990s, which also caused high inflation. The rial’s value began to slide rapidly at the beginning of 2012 after the United States announced new sanctions above and beyond the latest U.N. sanctions. The slide was due partly to the psychology of sanctions.
With increased sanctions, the demand went up for gold, foreign currency and anything independent of the rial. In fact, the real estate market in Tehran has been growing over the last six months. It had slowed in previous years due to a housing crash just like everywhere else. People are even putting money into real estate in poorer neighborhoods, which means people are continuing to take money out of the banks and invest it in housing.
After the Russian and Argentine financial crises, both countries ended up with more nationalist leaders in power--Vladimir Putin and Nestor Kirchner. Policymakers in the United States might want to remember that. Financial crises do not always produce what you want or expect.
What is the Iranian government’s response?
The government is trying to respond with various short-term measures. For example, the price of rice has gone up only slightly compared to the price of chicken partly because the government has exchanged oil for stockpiled rice with India. Everybody eats rice in Iran and not everyone can afford chicken, so the government is attempting to prioritize those goods which have the widest consumption.
The government also went back to a tiered currency regime similar to what it had in the 1980s, during the Iraq-Iran War, and through the 1990s. Various types of imports and transactions had different exchange rates. Today, the official exchange rate is used for strategic imports such as food and medicine. That is another reason the price of rice did not go up a lot.
The price of chicken went up a lot, however, because Iran is not a socialist country. It cannot control the price of everything. Chicken farmers and wholesale buyers respond to market prices. The government capped the store price of chicken, but the price of chicken feed was going up because much of it is imported.
The state also stopped its phased subsidy reductions. It had planned to further cut longstanding subsidies for electricity, gasoline and utilities, but parliament told the president in the spring to continue the current level of subsidies. The president initially refused, but under parliamentary pressure has deferred any new price hikes. So U.S. and E.U. sanctions have forced the Islamic Republic to stop the subsidy reduction program that the International Monetary Fund and the Ahmadinejad government had been working on for years.
What roles have U.S. and international sanctions played in Iran’s currency drama? In July 2012, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said that only 20 percent of Iran’s economic problems were due to international sanctions. What is your assessment?
It is hard to put a number on what percentage U.S. and E.U. sanctions have on currency devaluation and inflation because both are produced by a combination of factors-- what individuals do based on future uncertainty and the sometimes contradictory policies of the government.
The Central Bank has suggested that it may change the official exchange rate. What impact will that have? Will it solve the problem? Are there any side effects or dangers?
Some economists, including many in Iran, say the country needs a single rate. People make money playing the official and unofficial currency rates off each other. But the state does not have the luxury of unifying the rial’s value. So it is trying all sorts of stop-gap measures, which in the long term are harmful. They create opportunities for speculation. But the state, which is dealing in the short term, is in a double bind. Letting the official rate devalue would lead to such an inflationary burst that prices could go up even more.
In the 1980s, the government also tried to plan what food and consumer goods came into the country. The government had to basically take over the market, and this is what they are doing again--only for those items or industries that it feels are strategic, like rice, as opposed to chicken. Politically, you cannot have a whole town without rice; it is impossible.