RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The currency of Iran, the rial, took another plunge this week. The value of the rial against the dollar had been sliding steadily for months.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now with the threat of new economic sanctions from the United States and Europe, the rial seems to be in freefall. But as NPR's Mike Shuster reports, at least part of that dive could be linked to currency manipulation by the government itself.

MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: On Monday, hundreds of Iranians gathered outside the headquarters of the Bank Melli in Tehran. They wanted to buy dollars, but there were no dollars to be had.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

SHUSTER: Someone took video pictures of the scene and posted them on the Internet. It's a classic panic, says Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

JON ALTERNMAN: It's hard to find Iranians who have a lot of trust in the future of the rial and a strong belief that they should keep their life savings in rials. That's a pretty big bet, and it's not a very good one.

SHUSTER: The slide started slowly last fall. For years, you could buy about 9,000 rials with a dollar. Many economists believe this period of stability was maintained artificially by Iran's central bank.

Over the past decade, inflation in Iran has been running at more than 20 percent, but banks were paying only 12 percent interest on deposits. That meant that depositors were losing some 10 percent if they kept their rials in bank accounts. By all rights, that should have forced a devaluation of the rial, but it didn't because Iran's central bank, where billions and billions of dollars from oil sales are deposited, kept injecting plenty of dollars into the foreign currency market to maintain a steady rial.

Then a number of factors combined to put irresistible pressure on the rial: Iran's progress in its nuclear program led to talk of war, growing pressure from economic sanctions, closing the Strait of Hormuz. The slide had begun, and says Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an expert on Iran's economy at Virginia Tech, dollars quickly became scarce.

DJAVAD SALEHI-ISFAHANI: When they thought the dollar is going to become more scarce, people rushed to buy these, and they basically disappeared from Tehran. Today, if you go to a private exchange, these money changers in Tehran, they'll say they don't have foreign exchange. They don't have dollars.

SHUSTER: Iranians who want to travel outside the country can't buy enough dollars to make the trip. Iranians whose children are studying abroad can't buy dollars to pay for their courses or cover their rent. Businessmen who import goods from China or Europe can't get the foreign exchange to finance their purchases.

By New Year's, the rial had lost half its value, and Hossein Askari was predicting it could get much worse. Askari is a specialist on the Iranian economy at George Washington University.

HOSSEIN ASKARI: This could be an avalanche. What you've seen over the last month or two is about a 50 percent depreciation. But I think if, really, panic sets in, it could be a, you know, several hundred percent.

SHUSTER: Panic did hit the currency market in Tehran this week, with the threat of new banking sanctions imposed by the United States and a decision by the European Union to stop buying Iran's oil by July 1st.

On Tuesday, the exchange rate plummeted to 23,000. Now suspicions have emerged about more hidden causes of the rial's collapse. According to Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cronies, have been accumulating a slush fund to use in the upcoming parliamentary, or Majles, elections in March.

MUHAMMAD SAHIMI: The Ahmadinejad camp needs cash in order to prop up its candidates for the Majles election. So what they do is because they control the central bank, they withdraw a lot of foreign currency from the market.

SHUSTER: They can then sell the dollars back into the market for twice as many rials, creating, Sahimi says, an enormous slush fund to buy votes in the election. Many analysts believe Ahmadinejad is seeking a parliament that supports him, not Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In Iran, almost nothing, not even a currency crisis, is separate from domestic politics.

Mike Shuster, NPR News.

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