STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's one more factor in the confrontation between the West and Iran: It's the tolerance and endurance of Iran's people. Economic sanctions have hampered the country for more than 30 years. President Obama's administration recently imposed the most intensive sanctions ever on Iran's banking system. The goal is to prevent Iran from receiving and using billions of dollars in oil profits, also to persuade Iran's leaders to make a deal over the country's nuclear program or risk economic suffering, even political unrest. The sanctions, though, have also prompted Iranians to take creative measures to continue international business.
NPR's Mike Shuster has the story.
MIKE SHUSTER, BYLINE: No nation has been sanctioned so frequently and so thoroughly as the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it's fair to say that until recently, sanctions imposed on Iran, by the United States on its own and by the UN Security Council, have not changed Iran's determination to expand its nuclear activities.
But, on the last day of December, President Obama signed into law a bill that could ban foreign banks from operating in the United States if they carry out transactions with the Central Bank of Iran. That step came after several years of sanctions tightening, according to the president.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: What we've been able to do over the last three years is mobilize unprecedented, crippling sanctions on Iran.
SHUSTER: That pressure has forced many - perhaps most - international banks to think twice about doing business with Iran.
OBAMA: Iran is feeling the bite of these sanctions in a substantial way. The world is unified. Iran is politically isolated.
SHUSTER: Of course, that's not the way Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sees it.
AYATOLLAH ALI KHAMENEI: (Foreign language spoken)
SHUSTER: Obama has said he will bring Iran to its knees through sanctions, Khamenei told a national television audience a few days ago. This is a delusion. They call these paralyzing sanctions for the past year? We've been under sanctions for 30 years. Despite the supreme leader's words, the current sanctions no doubt have been disruptive for the government and for many of Iran's people, says Muhammad Sahimi, a professor at the University of Southern California who writes regularly for the website Tehran Bureau.
MUHAMMAD SAHIMI: It has greatly tightened and restricted the freedom that the Iranian government needed to carry out all these transactions. And that, in turn, of course, has affected the lives of ordinary Iranians.
SHUSTER: The most dramatic development has been the collapse of Iran's currency, the rial. Over the past few months, it has lost more than half its value against the dollar, sparking a panic that saw Iranians desperate to flee the rial and turn their holdings into hard currency. This has put enormous pressure on Iran's foreign currency reserves. As a result, Sahimi notes, the government imposed stiff restrictions, under penalty of imprisonment, on how much foreign currency ordinary Iranians can hold or send out of the country.
SAHIMI: So it has become very difficult to many Iranians to actually either send any money to outside Iran, or sell their assets in Iran and get it out of Iran.
SHUSTER: Ordinary Iranians have become money smugglers, hoarding their dollars, filling suitcases with cash, and traveling out of Iran to make deposits into international banks. Some people have even resorted to taking stashes of cash by speedboat across the Persian Gulf at night to make their deposits in banks on the other side. One of the favorite destinations is Dubai, says Hossein Askari, an expert on Iran's economy at George Washington University. Its banks have bowed to U.S. pressure to forgo dealings with Iran's government, but not with individual Iranians.
HOSSEIN ASKARI: And when you get on the other side, in many countries, especially in Dubai, nobody asks you any questions.
SHUSTER: At the government level, banks in India and China are still doing business with Iran. China imports a great deal of Iran's oil, so it has established accounts for Iran in China amounting to billions of dollars. But China reportedly has imposed exorbitant fees and restrictions on these accounts, a development just now becoming known in Iran, says Muhammad Sahimi.
SAHIMI: That is beginning to change the perception, even within Iran, whether China is really Iran's strategic ally, or is just taking advantage of the situation.
SHUSTER: For the sanctions to be fully effective, the United States would have to move to close loopholes like this. Hossein Askari is skeptical.
ASKARI: I don't think the United States will do that with Indian banks. And I am 100 percent sure it will not do with Chinese banks.
SHUSTER: Too much else is at stake between the U.S. and China, especially - tough sanctions, yes, but watertight, probably not. Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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