The Islamic Republic's imports of soya beans from the US have surged this autumn ahead of looming sanctions from President Donald Trump. Almost 335,000 tons have left terminals on the Mississippi River since the crop marketing year began in September, data from the US Department of Agriculture show — up from zero at the same point last year and more than volumes to most European countries, Financial Times reported.
The unusual shipments reflect a multi-faceted story. China, the world's largest soya bean importer, in July sharply raised duties on US supplies in retaliation for tariffs on its products. Soya bean prices have declined by 20 percent in Chicago as the Chinese buy oilseeds elsewhere.
US sanctions on Iran's oil exports will resume on November 4 following Trump's withdrawal from a nuclear accord with world powers. Iran has been stockpiling basic foods such as corn and soya beans in an aim "not to face any shortage of strategic commodities", said Mani Jamshidi, a food industry expert in Tehran.
Importers including Mexico, Spain, Egypt, Thailand and Iran have taken advantage of the depressed price of US soya beans. Akbar Sebqati, secretary of the Iranian Oilseed Extraction Industry Association, said they now cost importers €50 less per ton than soya beans from South America, the other main source of world supplies.
"We buy our commodity from a cheaper producer, no matter [if] it is US or another country. It has nothing to do to politics," said Sebqati.
Addressing the US-China trade war, he said: "We should seize opportunities provided to our country during decision making in world trade."
Iran is a small but growing player in international grain markets, with an estimated 2.6 million tons in soya bean imports this year. Its poultry industry requires animal feed made from corn, barley, wheat and soya meal, some of it foreign grown.
Sales of US agricultural products to Iran were permitted even before a previous round of international sanctions was lifted in 2015. Sanctions that Trump imposed in August targeted cars, gold and other metals trading and the government's ability to buy US dollars, excluding agricultural products.
Bunge, the New York-listed grain and oilseed trader with terminals on the Mississippi River, declined to comment on specific contracts but said it "exports agricultural commodities to Iran in accordance with all applicable economic sanctions laws, which authorize the sale of food for humanitarian reasons".
"Bringing in a market like Iran, and all the others combined, is essential if China is not going to import from us," said Sam Funk, economist at AgServe.com, an agricultural consultancy in St. Louis.
In the year 2018 to date, Iran's purchases have totaled 886,000 tons.