TEHRAN: Iran’s currency hit a new record low to the U.S. dollar Monday, two days after President Barack Obama signed into law a bill targeting Iran’s central bank as part of the West’s efforts to pressure Tehran over its nuclear program.
State radio said the Iranian currency’s exchange rate hovered around 16,800 riyals to the dollar, marking a roughly 10 percent slide compared to Thursday’s rate of 15,200 riyals to the dollar. The riyal was trading at around 10,500 riyals to the U.S. dollar in late December 2010.
The bill signed by Obama Saturday includes an amendment barring foreign financial institutions that do business with Iran’s central bank from opening or maintaining correspondent operations in the United States.
The Obama administration, however, is looking to soften the impact of the measure, fearing that they could lead to a spike in global crude oil prices or pressure key allies that import Iranian oil.
Iranian officials warned last week that the Islamic Republic could easily close the Strait of Hormuz, through which a sixth of the world’s oil passes, if the new measures were applied. But analysts and diplomats have downplayed the warning as little more than bluster on the part of Tehran.
Iran relies on oil exports for the overwhelming majority of its foreign revenues and shutting the strait would not only affect its oil, but also raises the possibility of a military confrontation.
Iranian officials downplayed Monday the new U.S. measure, with Economy Minister Shamseddin Hosseini quoted by the semi-official Mehr News agency as saying that targeting the central bank was an “unsuccessful choice.”
Mahdi Ghazanfari, Iran’s trade and industry minister, argued that the “enemies of Iran will not achieve any result through imposing sanctions” on the bank, while the bank’s governor, Mahmoud Bahmani said: “The world will laugh at the U.S. for imposing sanctions on Iran’s central bank.”
The pressure on the riyal is the latest example of the economic difficulties the country is facing as the U.S. and its allies seek to ramp up pressure over a nuclear enrichment program they maintain is aimed at developing a weapon. Iran says its program is purely peaceful.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Ahmadinejad said last week his administration would do everything it could to stave off further depreciation in the riyal’s value, signaling that the government could prop up the currency using its hard currency reserves.
Oil sales have allowed Iran to build up a nest egg of tens of billions of dollars. The Islamic Republic earns more than $70 billion from exporting crude per year, some 80 percent of its annual foreign revenue.
Ahmadinejad has already come under fire for cutting subsidies on fuel and food. The step is aimed at reducing government spending while also distributing money directly to the poor. Critics contend, however, that the cuts will do little more than stoke inflation.
Reflecting possible concerns about liquidity and the flight of hard currency, Iran has restricted cash withdrawal over the past few months and allows those traveling outside the country to take with them only $2,000 a year.