By Valerie Parent and Parisa Hafezi
PARIS/TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran is turning to barter - offering gold bullion in overseas vaults or tankerloads of oil - in return for food as new financial sanctions have hurt its ability to import basic staples for its 74 million people, commodities traders said Thursday.
Difficulty paying for urgent import needs has contributed to sharp rises in the prices of basic foodstuffs, causing hardship for Iranians with just weeks to go before an election seen as a referendum on President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's economic policies.
New sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union to punish Iran for its nuclear program do not bar firms from selling Iran food but they make it difficult to carry out the international financial transactions needed to pay for it.
Reuters surveys of commodities traders around the globe show that since the start of the year, Iran has had trouble securing imports of basic staples like rice, cooking oil, animal feed and tea. Grain ships have been held at its ports, refusing to unload until payment can be received for cargo.
With Iran's rial currency tumbling, the prices of rice, bread and meat in Iranian bazaars have doubled or more in dollar terms in recent months.
Iranian grain importers have in the past side-stepped sanctions by booking business through the United Arab Emirates, traders said, but this option was cut off by the UAE government in response to sanctions.
Iran has been trading oil in currencies like Japanese yen, South Korean won and Indian rupees, but such deals make it difficult to repatriate profits.
Deals revealed Thursday appear to be among the first in which Iran has had to result to offering cashless barter to avoid sanctions, a sign of new urgency as it seeks to buy food and get around the financial restrictions.
"Grain deals are being paid for in gold bullion and barter deals are being offered," one European grains trader said, speaking on condition of anonymity while discussing commercial deals. "Some of the major trading houses are involved."
Another trader said: "As the shipments of grain are so large, barter or gold payments are the quickest option."
Details of how the barter deals work are still unclear as the payments problem is so new, and traders did not disclose the exact size of such deals.
The economic hardship is being felt in Iran at a pivotal time in its domestic politics and its nuclear diplomacy with the West. The United States and Europe say the sanctions are needed to push Iran to the negotiating table before it produces enough nuclear material to build an atomic bomb.
Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful. Last month it began nuclear enrichment at a new facility deep under a mountain to make it secure from military strikes.
Iranian officials deny that sanctions are having a serious economic impact, while also saying that their people are willing to endure any hardship in support of the country's sovereign right to nuclear technology.
Officials in Israel, Iran's arch foe, openly say time is running out for air strikes to destroy the nuclear program if sanctions do not persuade Tehran to back down.
Iran's parliamentary election on March 2 will be its first vote since a presidential vote in 2009, when Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election against a reformist opponent triggered eight months of violent street demonstrations.
The Iranian government successfully put that uprising down by force, but since then the "Arab Spring" has revealed the vulnerability of authoritarian states in the region to popular anger fuelled by economic hardship.
Reformists are barely represented in next month's election, having been barred from standing or declaring boycotts. The vote will be hotly contested between Ahmadinejad's supporters and conservative opponents who blame him for economic disarray.
Children of Iranian opposition leaders called on the international community to help their voices reach the rest of the world, opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi's website Kaleme reported Wednesday.
Reformists are planning a rally next week, which could be a rare test of whether the soaring food prices are increasing anger on the streets.
The February 14 rally would mark a year of house arrest for Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, the candidates who opposed Ahmadinejad in 2009. It was announced on Mousavi's website, Kaleme.
The effect of Iran's difficulty processing payments on often opaque international commodities markets can be felt directly on the streets in the form of higher prices and shortages.
According to commodities traders in Asia, shipments of palm oil from both the top suppliers, Indonesia and Malaysia, have been halted to Iran because traders fear they cannot get paid. The two countries account for 90 percent of global supply of the oil, a staple ingredient for products from margarine to sweets.
"I can confirm that Singaporean firms have stopped. We don't want to go anywhere near Iran at this moment, it is too risky," said a trader with a listed Singaporean firm that ships Indonesian palm oil cargoes to the Middle East and Iran.
A trading source from Saudi Arabia whose firm runs a 16,000-tonne-a-year plant that refines food oil in Iran said the sector was barely operating. A margarine factory owner in Tehran told Reuters Wednesday he expected to halt production within months because of a shortage of raw materials.
The impact could be felt in a Tehran pastry shop.
"We are going bankrupt and probably will be closed within weeks," said the owner Thursday. "All my ingredients come from abroad. Either the prices suddenly doubled or they stopped being shipped. We are doomed."
While the United States and Europe lack the authority without the United Nations to ban dealings by other countries with Iran, their measures can raise the cost of doing business so much that it is no longer profitable for traders.
"The objective of current and likely sanctions is very simple: to raise the cost of having anything to do with the purchase or shipping of Iranian petroleum to such an extent that even such potential partners who are formally beyond the legal jurisdiction of the United States or its allies will nonetheless shun doing business with Tehran," said J. Peter Pham, with the Atlantic Council, a U.S. think-tank.
China, which bought a fifth of Iran's oil exports last year, has cut its imports this year in half, seeking a steeper discount which will hurt Iran's revenues.
In public, companies and countries say they will still trade with Iran as long as it remains legal to do so.
"Like all the international companies, we do business there, but you have to be very careful," Paul Conway, chairman of U.S. agribusiness giant Cargill told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday.
Rahul Khullar, trade secretary of India, one of Iran's main trade partners, said: "If the EU and the U.S. both want to stop exports to that country, please tell me why I should follow suit? Why shouldn't I take up that business opportunity?"
Under U.S. pressure, India shut down a payments system for trade with Iran last year. Under a new system, Indian firms are expected to pay for 45 percent of their Iranian oil imports in Indian rupees to avoid going through international banks. Implementing the system has been stalled while Indian authorities work out whether to subject such payments to tax.
Traders revealed to Reuters this week that Iranian buyers had defaulted on payments for Indian rice. Khullar said there were also payment problems in tea, although he did not give details. Indian tea exports to Iran fell by a third last year.
Azam Monem, director at McLeod Russel India, the world's largest tea producer, said exporters were waiting for a system to be set up so that Iranian buyers can pay in rupees.
Reza Hosseini, a food wholesaler in Tehran, said: "The price per regular package of tea has doubled.... Since Iran is a big importer of tea, the sharp rise in price means that there is a problem with its import."
International shipping firms are cutting back business with Iran. Last year the United States blacklisted major Iranian port operator Tidewater Middle East Co, which operates seven terminals in Iran including Bandar Abbas, Iran's only container port connected to the world's big shipping lines.
"I sense that many international shipping companies are challenged beyond what they find can be justified when looking at the potential earnings of trading with Iran," said Jakob Larsen, a maritime security officer with BIMCO, the world's largest private shipowners' association.
"Having said that, I think there are still some who are able to carry on their business in a way that does not breach sanctions and yet ensures a decent return on investment."
Danish shipping company A.P. Moller-Maersk told Reuters this week it had suspended new oil tanker deals with Iran due to the EU measures.
German container shipping group Hapag-Lloyd said Thursday it no longer offered limited services to Iran. It had already ended consignments last year to Tidewater-run ports.
Iran faces a bigger challenge if U.S. lawmakers pass sanctions on its main tanker group, the privately run National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) with a fleet of 40 tankers, or on the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company.
"The measure ... would amount to de facto oil and shipping embargos," the Atlantic Council's Pham said. "The mere taint would also have a net negative effect on Iran, driving those fearful of the reach of sanctions to decide not to go through with transactions while giving Iran's remaining partners - one thinks, for example, of Chinese firms - the leverage to drive the price they pay down."
(Additional reporting by Mitra Amiri in Tehran, Niluksi Koswanage and Yantoultra Ngui in Kuala Lumpur, Yayat Supriatna and Neil Chatterjee in Jakarta, Matthias Williams and Manoj Kumar in New Delhi, Jonathan Saul and Michael Hogan in London; writing by Peter Graff, editing by Janet McBride)