Why Iran's currency dropped to worst low in two decades
The value of Iran's currency, the rial, to the dollar fell nearly 30 percent after President Obama approved new Iran sanctions on Saturday.
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The rial dropped almost 30 percent in two days, hitting exchange rates as low as 17,800 rials per dollar on Monday as Iranians rushed to sell their local currency holdings in favor of havens such as the euro, the United Arab Emirates dirham, the US dollar, and gold.
Washington's new financial legislation against Tehran will sanction foreign firms that purchase Iranian oil – by far the chief source of Iranian government revenue – and penalize banks engaging in financial transactions with Iran. The legislation won't be enacted for another six months, in order for the White House to prepare for any potential fallout on global oil prices, and the rial strengthened today somewhat to 16,200 rials to the dollar.
But the psychological impact on ordinary Iranians, who see a strong rial as a sign of national strength amid the Islamic Republic's growing international isolation, has been huge.
“Mr. Obama's decision was a spark. There is an air of panic and people are worried,” says George Washington University economist Hossein Askari, who is an expert on Iran's macroeconomic policies. “If Iran's Central Bank or entities that deal with the Central Bank are going to be sanctioned, it means Iran's ability to import goods and finance imports will be more costly and pressure its foreign exchange reserves.”
Potential dent in Iran's oil revenues
Iran's Central Bank, which serves as a clearinghouse for nearly all oil and gas payments in Iran, has faced increasing difficulty over the past year in facilitating foreign currency transactions abroad.
Monetary policy inside the Islamic Republic is facilitated by buying and selling currencies through a network of money-exchange dealers throughout Iran, Europe and the Middle East, allowing Tehran to maintain the rial within a range determined by the Central Bank. By hindering the National Iranian Oil Company's ability to transfer oil revenues back to Tehran and by reducing the Central Bank's access to foreign exchange reserves held overseas, US Treasury sanctions have therefore limited the Central Bank's ability to control the depreciation of Iran's currency.
Last year, the Central Bank put a cap of $2,000 on the amount of currency private Iranian citizens looking to travel abroad could take out of government banks at the official rate of 11,180. Any foreign currency purchases beyond the Central Bank's $2,000 limit for private citizens must be made at the higher market rate for Iran's currency.
When the latest sanctions signed into law by President Obama are implemented, they could theoretically target the smaller, local banks in US-allied countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, or Turkey that Iran has had to use to transfer cash back to Tehran.