U.S.-Iran Talks Will Falter Unless Abdolnaser Hemmati Is at the Table

25 Feb 2021

U.S.-Iran Talks Will Falter Unless Abdolnaser Hemmati Is at the Table

Unwinding sanctions will be central to reviving the nuclear deal. If the Biden administration wants a lasting solution, it must involve Iran’s central bank governor.

By Esfandyar Batmanghahelidj, Saheb Sadeghi

February 25, 2021

https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/02/25/u-s-iran-talks-will-falter-unless-abdolnaser-hemmati-is-at-the-table/

 

The United States and Iran may soon be sitting at the negotiating table once again. In just the last week, the Biden administration has offered to restart negotiations, and Iran has struck a deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency to slow moves to limit inspections of its nuclear program. A window of opportunity has emerged for the two sides to talk, likely in a format facilitated by the European Union. If and when the United States and Iran sit across from one another again, there is a key figure who ought to be present—Abdolnaser Hemmati, the governor of Iran’s central bank.

In many respects, Iran’s central bank was the primary target of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s economic war on Iran. Much of the economic hardship that Iran has experienced due to the reimposition of secondary sanctions can be attributed to the Trump administration’s success in limiting the central bank’s access to its foreign exchange reserves.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Iran retains access to just $8.8 billion of readily available foreign currency, roughly one-tenth of its total reserves. Without access to its reserves held in countries like Iraq, South Korea, Japan, and Germany, the central bank has struggled to forestall the weakening of Iran’s currency, which is today worth less than one-fifth of its value prior to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This deep depreciation made imported goods more expensive, contributing to annual inflation rates of nearly 50 percent.


Hemmati, a veteran banker, was appointed as central bank governor in July 2018, parachuting in just a few months before secondary sanctions were fully reimposed on Iran. He has performed remarkably well in difficult circumstances. Iran’s currency was regaining value for most of 2019, a trend disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, which hit the country’s economy hard, throwing trade into disarray.

Since reaching a historic low in October 2020 of just over 320,000 rials to the dollar on the free market, the currency has since stabilized at around 250,000 rials to the dollar—with this stability helping to undergird Iran’s slow economic recovery. Along the way, Hemmati has proved an adept communicator, using his Instagram account, the central bank’s website, and even select interviews with international media to outline his priorities and reassure the Iranian public about the bank’s capacity to defend the rial from hyperinflation.

Hemmati, a veteran banker, was appointed as central bank governor in July 2018, parachuting in just a few months before secondary sanctions were fully reimposed on Iran. He has performed remarkably well in difficult circumstances.

Iran has not faced a full-blown economic meltdown, despite the best efforts of the Trump administration. But the country finds itself in a painful period of economic stagnation, and sanctions relief will be needed should any government wish to deliver on promises of prosperity. However, Trump sought to make sanctions relief more difficult.

In September 2019, the Trump administration designated Iran’s central bank under a terrorism authority, a move that jeopardized long-standing exemptions permitting the bank to play a crucial role in facilitating the purchase of humanitarian goods such as food and medicine.

In February 2020, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a new general license to allay those concerns. But more troubling was the intention behind the terrorism designation, which was applied to Iran’s central bank for the express purpose of making it harder for a potential Democratic administration to lift sanctions on the bank in the future.

The Biden administration will likely need to remove this designation to bring the bank back to its original status under the JCPOA—but removing a designation ostensibly tied to Iran’s purported support for terrorism may prove politically tricky as part of U.S. reentry into an agreement focused exclusively on the country’s nuclear program.

Lifting sanctions was difficult even before the Trump administration’s cynical moves. Iran’s experience of sanctions relief following the implementation of the JCPOA was disappointing. International banks remained hesitant to process Iran-related transactions, citing unclear guidance on how to conduct business in a compliant manner and the risks of punitive fines if the remaining sanctions were inadvertently violated.