By Tim Lister and Emily Smith CNN
Iran is buying American wheat for the first time in three years as it seeks to hedge against the growing impact of sanctions and weather-related crop shortages. Some 120,000 tonnes of hard red winter wheat grown in the Plains is on its way to the Islamic Republic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sale of another 60,000 tonnes has been finalized, according to trade sources, and Iran may ultimately buy some 400,000 tonnes of U.S. wheat this year.
The purchases are part of a massive effort by the Islamic Republic to build up its grain stockpiles amid growing difficulties in financing imports of everything from steel to palm oil. At the same time, Iranian companies are devising elaborate workarounds to find new markets for crude oil exports.
Exports of U.S. wheat to Iran are legal. U.S. and European sanctions against Iran exempt agricultural products. The major U.S. commodity traders - Bunge, Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill - won't comment on whether they were involved in the deals, but Cargill told CNN that it "does sell agricultural commodities to Iran as food is specifically excluded from the sanctions" implemented because of Iran's nuclear program.
"We take great care to ensure that these sales respect both the spirit and the letter of the law while trying to make sure that ordinary people are not deprived of basic foodstuffs," a Cargill spokeswoman said.
According to USDA figures, 1,564,000 tonnes of U.S. wheat were exported to Iran in 2008, when the country was suffering a drought, and 312,000 tonnes the following year. Iran has also bought smaller amounts of U.S. soybeans and corn.
Once again, analysts say dry weather is in part driving the sales.
"Iran's appetite is driven by drought, a desire to build up grain inventories and hedging against the future impact of sanctions," says Shelley Goldberg, director of global resources and commodities strategy at Roubini Global Economics. "Inventories were getting quite low last year."
State-owned and private Iranian companies are devising ways to overcome the shortage of hard currency, using barter, gold and currencies such as the Indian rupee and Russian rouble. Traders say it also appears that Iran's Central Bank has stepped in, making foreign exchange available to facilitate imports.
Iranian importers are also looking to Pakistan for several hundred thousand tonnes of rice and wheat this year as part of a complex barter deal. Pakistan has a wheat surplus.
A spokesman at Pakistan's Ministry of Water & Power, Tanveer Alam, told CNN Monday that Pakistan was planning to export one million tonnes of wheat in exchange for iron ore and fertilizer.
Such elaborate deals are making up for difficulties with more conventional trade relationships. "Even though wheat and agricultural products are not targeted by sanctions, there is a growing reluctance to do business with Iran. It's a case of bad karma,' says Goldberg.
In recent weeks, several cargoes of grain destined for Iranian ports have been diverted to other countries because of payment problems, according to commodity traders. U.S. and European sanctions against some 30 Iranian banks have produced what financial sources call a "chilling effect" - with banks and currency dealers less willing to provide letters of credit for Iranian imports and exports.
Over the weekend, Iran was further isolated from the global financial system when many of its banks designated by European sanctions were blocked from using SWIFT, the messaging system that supports international bank transfers. Those banks include Mellat, Post, Saderat and Sepah as well as the Iranian Central Bank.
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz was quoted in Israeli media over the weekend as saying that cutting off SWIFT was a "dramatic step that is liable to bring about the collapse of Iran's economy."
Trading and banking sources contest that view, saying Iran has proved ingenious at circumventing sanctions and mitigating their effect. They said it is by regional standards a diversified and self-reliant economy.
The Islamic Republic is also finding new destinations for its crude oil, although analysts speculate that it often has to sell at a discount to market rates. Shipping sources say Iran is increasing deliveries to Asian customers - especially in China, South Korea and India - as the European Union prepares to ban all imports and Japan diversifies its sources of crude.
The European Union ban comes into effect from July 1. But that ban, agreed in January, might yet be revised to provide Iran a significant loophole.
Originally it covered Iranian crude carried on any ship insured in the European Union. More than 90% of the world's oil tankers are covered through insurance "clubs" in London. But one reinsurance source in London says he expects the proposed sanctions to be diluted when EU foreign ministers meet later this week to exempt ships that are owned outside the European Union even if insured there. This would make it easier to move Iranian crude.
India has lobbied for a revision of the sanctions regime and made it clear that it will only abide by U.N.-mandated measures.
Chinese shippers have already made it clear that they will continue to take Iranian crude and if necessary seek other sources of insurance. About one-fifth of Iran's crude exports go to China. Hong Kong media quoted a senior official of the China Shipping Development Co. as saying Friday that the Chinese government would take measures to ensure the volume of oil imports from Iran would not drop.
Even so, financial sanctions against Iran continue to complicate the country's trade.
In Gulf trading houses, the unofficial value of Iran's rial has declined by half over the past year. Currency exchange firms in the Gulf emirates are reluctant to trade in the rial for fear of being tainted by association with banks sanctioned by the United States and European Union.
CNN's Reza Sayah contributed to this report