This blog post is a guest post on BullionStar’s Blog by the renowned blogger JP Koning who will be writing about monetary economics, central banking and gold. BullionStar does not endorse or oppose the opinions presented but encourage a healthy debate.
With Donald Trump close to re-instituting economic sanctions on Iran, it’s worth remembering that gold served as a tool for skirting the the last round of Iranian sanctions. If a blockade were to be re-imposed on Iran, might this role be resuscitated?
The 2010-2015 Monetary Blockade
The set of sanctions that the U.S. began placing on Iran back in 2010 can be best thought of as a monetary blockade. It relied on deputizing U.S. banks to act as snitches. Any U.S. bank that was caught providing correspondent accounts to a foreign bank that itself helped Iran engage in sanctioned activities would be fined. To avoid being penalized, U.S. banks threatened their foreign bank customers to stop enabling Iranian payments or lose their accounts. And of course the foreign banks (mostly) complied. Being cut off from the U.S. payment system would have meant losing a big chunk of business, whereas losing Iranian businesses was small fry.
One of the sanctioned activities was helping Iran to sell oil. By proving that they had significantly reduced their Iranian oil imports, large importers like Japan, Korea, Turkey, India, and China managed to secure for their banks a temporary exemption from U.S. banking sanctions. So banks could keep facilitating oil-related payments for Iran without being cut off from the dollar-based payments system. The result was that Iran’s oil exports fell, but never ground to a halt. This was a fairly balanced approach. While the U.S. wanted to deprive Iran of oil revenue – which might be used to build nuclear weapons – it didn’t want to force allies to do entirely without necessary crude oil.
The U.S. Iran Threat Reduction & Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) further tightened the noose. The TRA prevented Iran from repatriating any of the oil & gas funds that were accumulating in foreign escrow accounts maintained in Turkey, Japan, and elsewhere. To enforce this restriction, any bank proven to repatriate Iranian oil money would be cut off by its U.S. correspondent bank, thus losing its connection to the U.S. banking system.
The inability to unlock funds was inconvenient for Iran. There was no useful purpose to which the pariah nation could put all the Japanese yen, Indian rupees, Chinese yuan, or Turkish lira that was piling up in its overseas escrow accounts. Iran could still buy non-sanctioned goods and services in these countries and bring them back to Iran, say food, medicine, and whatnot. But none of the oil-importing nations provided Iran with enough importable stuff that it could draw its account balances down to zero. The funds held in escrow were dead money.
Gold Enters the Scene
This is where gold was recruited as a useful payments rail for evading the sanctions. The scheme was carried out primarily through Turkey. Gold dealer Reza Zarrab, one of the most well-known expediters of the scheme, designed an escape hatch for Iranian funds along with bank officials at Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank. Iranian funds frozen in a Halkbank escrow accounts (denominated in Turkish lira) were transferred to accounts held at Halkbank by Zarrab’s shell companies and used to buy gold in the Turkish gold market.
This technically was not illegal. While an earlier set of sanctions had prohibited banks from directly helping the Iranian government to deal in gold, it was still legal for them to help “private” persons to access gold, as long as the gold was sent to Iran and not elsewhere. Zarrab sent some of this gold directly to Iran. The rest was exported to Dubai where it was sold for dollars, the cash being returned to Turkey where Zarrab laundered it back into the banking system. Now the Iranian government could finally make use of it. Below is a chart that Zarrab made at his 2017 court trial that illustrates the complexity of the gold trade.