Tomato squeeze: US sanctions begin to distort Iran's economy | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 12, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:06 AM, October 12, 2018

Tomato squeeze: US sanctions begin to distort Iran's economy

Tomato paste is not the most obvious economic indicator, but in Iran, where it is a staple that some people have started panic-buying, it says a lot about the impact of renewed US sanctions.

While Iran makes its own paste from an abundant crop of locally grown tomatoes, sanctions reimposed by US President Donald Trump since August have played havoc with supply.

A 70 percent slide in the rial this year has prompted a scramble for foreign currency that has made exports much more valuable in local terms than selling produce at home.

Some shops are limiting purchases of tomato paste, which is used in many Persian dishes, and some lines have sold out as people buy up existing stock.

The government has responded by banning tomato exports, one of a raft of interventions to try to limit economic instability that has fueled public protests and criticism of the government this year.

But the tomato policy is not working. An industry representative said tomatoes were being smuggled abroad.

“We have heard that trucks full of tomatoes are still leaving the country, especially to Iraq,” Mohammad Mir-Razavi, head of the Syndicate of Canning Industry, said by telephone.

“They put boxes of greenhouse tomatoes on top and hide normal tomatoes at the bottom,” he said, referring to an exemption for hot-house grown tomatoes that left a loophole.

It is one of many ways in which the sanctions are hurting ordinary Iranians while benefiting those with access to hard currency.

Washington reintroduced steps against Iran's currency trade, metals and auto sectors in August after the US withdrawal from a deal that lifted sanctions in return for limits on Iran's nuclear program. Trump said the deal was not strict enough.

With US curbs on Iran's oil exports set to come into force next month, some Iranians fear their country is entering an economic slump that may prove worse than the period from 2012 to 2015, when it last faced major sanctions.

“There is an emerging consensus that the economy will go through a period of austerity similar to that recorded during the Iran-Iraq war,” said Mehrdad Emadi, an Iranian economist who heads energy risk analysis at London's Betamatrix consultancy.

Jumps in prices are occurring in a range of goods — particularly imports such as mobile telephones and other consumer electronics, but also some staples. A bottle of milk, 15,000 rials last year, now sells for 36,000.

An 800-gramme (28-ounce) can of tomato paste was selling in Tehran stores for around 60,000 rials in March; it is now 180,000 rials, or $1.24 at the unofficial rate, prompting a scramble by households to stock up. The price of tomatoes has increased more than five-fold compared to last year.

Signs on the shelves of some stores limit each customer to two cans. Iranian online shopping site Digikala lists the top nine tomato paste items as out of stock, and the rest as “coming soon”. In supermarkets in Najaf in neighboring Iraq, meanwhile, supplies of Iranian tomato paste are plentiful.

Adding to the pressure is a fourfold rise in the price of cans, Mir-Razavi said. Traders importing material to make cans sought to buy dollars at a little-used official rate of 42,000 rials; authorities asked them to use a more expensive rate. The issue has delayed shipments of material to factories.

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