Ahead of Trump Decision, Iran Says It Seeks ‘Constructive’ Relations With World

(Reuters/AP) -
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting with officials in the northeastern city of Mashhad, Monday. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran seeks constructive relations with the world but will continue domestic development despite possible sanctions, President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, hours before President Donald Trump announces a decision on Iran’s nuclear deal. This appeared to be a nod to Europe, which has struck a series of business deals with Iran since the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the deal, which lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear ambitions, unless European allies who also signed the deal fix what he has called its shortcomings.

Trump said Monday he will announce his final decision on Tuesday afternoon.

Trump’s tweet came late on Monday night, meaning major newspapers across Iran missed the announcement for their front pages.

Iran’s state-run media broadcast carried the announcement at 10 a.m. local time, and Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency also carried a report on it.

Overnight, Iran’s semi-official news agencies carried the news of Trump’s tweet, while others shared foreign media reports online.

“The foundation of our foreign policy is constructive relations with the world,” Rouhani said in a speech broadcast live on state media.

“If we are under sanctions or not, we should stand on our own feet. This is very important for the development of our country,” Rouhani said in a meeting with oil managers in Tehran.

Iran said on Monday that its oil industry would continue to develop even if the United States reimposed sanctions on Tehran.

Sanctions imposed on Iran in early 2012 by the United States and European Union over its nuclear program cut Iran’s crude exports from a peak of 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) before the sanctions to a little more than one million bpd.

But Iran re-emerged as a major oil exporter in January 2016 when international sanctions were suspended.

Meanwhile, Iran’s rial traded near record lows against the dollar in the free market on Tuesday as Iranians tried to buy hard currency, fearing economic turmoil.

The dollar was selling for 65,000 rials, according to foreign exchange website Bonbast.com, which tracks the free market. That was down from 57,500 at the end of last month and 42,890 at the end of last year.

Economists inside and outside the country said the rial was being driven down by heavy demand for dollars among Iranians who feared a U.S. pullout from the nuclear agreement would lead to the resumption of U.S. sanctions against Tehran, deterring other nations in Europe and Asia from developing business ties.

This could constrict Iran’s foreign trade, causing a spike of inflation and further reducing access to hard currency in an economy which is already struggling with high unemployment and the threat of a crisis among financially troubled banks.

As pressure on the rial mounted in early April, Iranian authorities tried to halt its slide by saying they were unifying official and free-market exchange rates at a single level of 42,000, and banning any trade at other rates.

People who violated the ban were threatened with arrest. The strategy failed to stamp out the free market, however, because demand for dollars far exceeds limited supplies that authorities have provided through formal channels at the official rate.

“The free market has been shut down officially, but it continues its work unofficially. There is an underground currency market in Iran, with rates, charts and everything,” said an analyst in Tehran, declining to be named for legal reasons.

“Instead of stopping by at the exchange shop, people arrange their trade by phone calls and through underground channels.”

As part of its crackdown, Iran clamped a 10,000-euro ($11,900) ceiling on the amount of foreign currency that citizens can hold outside banks.

The Tehran analyst said this regulation was being widely disobeyed, and estimated billions of dollars were being held illicitly outside banks.

“The real dollar rate is much higher, and people know from the past that when they deposited their dollars into bank accounts, they were not able to withdraw later.”

Publicly, Iranian officials have blamed the rial’s weakness on a plot by the United States and other nations. But the turmoil has had political repercussions in Tehran, where members of parliament have demanded the resignation of central bank governor Valiollah Seif.

The government was already under fire over its management of the economy. In January, public protests over corruption and economic hardship were crushed by the authorities and at least 25 people were killed.

Iran is running a substantial current account surplus, according to the International Monetary Fund, which estimates the government’s foreign assets and reserves at $112 billion.

With oil prices at multiyear highs, that may give Tehran enough firepower to prevent any collapse of the rial, if it chooses to satisfy the demand for hard currency and flood the free market with dollars.

But official economic data in Iran can be inaccurate, and some private economists estimate the amount of reserves which Tehran can easily access is much lower.

In March, the semi-official ISNA News Agency quoted Mohammad Reza Pourebrahimi, head of the economic committee in Iran’s parliament, as saying Iran had suffered capital outflows of $30 billion over four months.