April 1, 2016 | Policy Brief

The White House Cedes More, Even As Iran’s Economy Recovers

April 1, 2016 | Policy Brief

The White House Cedes More, Even As Iran’s Economy Recovers

While U.S. and European diplomats celebrated the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last summer, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his government saw that deal as not the end of the negotiations but the beginning. This has become increasingly clear in their criticism of sanctions relief and demand for more.

The Obama administration appears ready to comply. Reports confirm that the administration is preparing a general license authorizing the use of the U.S. dollar in Iran-related transactions. This is intended to encourage large European and other banks to return to business with Iran and help alleviate its concerns about the legal risks associated with engaging with a country still under U.S. sanctions for money laundering, terrorism and missile proliferation, and human rights abuses.

The license would contradict repeated administration promises to Congress, and goes beyond any commitments made to Iran under the JCPOA. It also contradicts the evidence: Tehran has already received substantial sanctions relief, a major “stimulus package.”

In 2012 and 2013, Iran’s economy was crashing. It had been hit with an asymmetric shock from sanctions, including those targeting its central bank, oil exports, and access to the SWIFT financial messaging system. The economy shrank by six percent in the 2012-13 fiscal year, and bottomed out the following year, dropping another two percent. Accessible foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be down to only $20 billion.

This changed during the nuclear negotiations. During the 18-month period starting in late 2013, interim sanctions relief and the lack of new shocks enabled Iran to move from a severe recession to a modest recovery. During that time, the Islamic Republic received $11.9 billion through the release of restricted assets, while sanctions on major sectors of its economy were suspended. This facilitated strong imports that supported domestic investment, especially from China. The Obama administration also de-escalated the sanctions pressure by blocking new congressional legislation. Jointly, these forces rescued the Iranian economy and its leaders, including the Revolutionary Guard, from an imminent and severe balance of payments crisis. In the 2014-15 fiscal year, the Iranian economy rebounded and grew at a rate of 3 to 4 percent.

Now, under the JCPOA, Iran has received access to an additional $100 billion in previously frozen foreign assets, significantly boosting its accessible foreign exchange reserves. Sanctions were also lifted on Iran’s crude oil exports and upstream energy investment, and on key sectors of the economy and hundreds of Iranian banks, companies, individuals, and government entities. The additional access of Iranian institutions to global financial payments systems has reduced transaction costs and the need for intermediaries.

In the current fiscal year – with declining oil prices and a tight monetary policy to rein in inflation – Iran’s economy grew only slightly, and may have even experienced a modest contraction. But in the coming fiscal year, its economy is projected to grow at a rate of 3 to 6 percent, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and private sector analysts. Assuming that Iran continues to make modest economic reforms to attract investment, the country’s economic growth is projected to stabilize around 4 to 4.5 percent annually over the next five years.

The future success of Iran’s economy depends on privatization, encouraging competition, addressing corruption, recapitalizing banks, and strengthening the rule of law. If Tehran wants to encourage foreign investment and alleviate international banks’ concerns, it also needs to end its support for terrorism, missile development, and destabilizing regional activities, and to reduce the economic power of the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the supreme leader’s business empire. All of these increase the risks of investing in the Islamic Republic, regardless of what deal sweeteners the White House provides.

Mark Dubowitz is executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where he focuses on Iran and directs the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn

Annie Fixler is a policy analyst at the Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. Find her on Twitter: @afixler


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