Iran has ramped up its campaign to import wheat, buying more than 800,000 tonnes in two weeks in what some traders said was a drive to ensure adequate supplies for a possibly tense period after Friday’s election.
This is the first presidential poll since a disputed 2009 contest led to months of unrest in the oil-producing country of 75 million people.
Traders believe Tehran has paid a significant premium for at least 200,000 tonnes of wheat this week, adding to the previous week’s purchases of 600,000 tonnes of bread-making wheat and 60,000 tonnes of animal feed wheat from Germany and the Baltic and Black Sea regions.
Some traders said 300,000 tonnes or more of 12.5 per cent-protein wheat — suitable for bread — may have been bought in the latest purchases.
“The pace of buying has been truly incredible,” a European trader said. “Iran is still looking for more.”
Iran, once a wheat exporter, is forecast to need at least three million tonnes of imports in the season starting in summer.
“Iran has a large supply requirement with market talk that its harvest is not as good as expected,” a European trader said.
The latest deals were believed to be for shipment in August, September and October, traders said.
“Iran’s elections are among their considerations for these purchases and they want to ensure they have sufficient stocks after the outcome,” a Middle East-based trade source said.
Other Middle Eastern countries, including Tunisia, have also made special efforts to ensure sufficient supplies of wheat at times of political uncertainty to avoid bread shortages.
The 50 million eligible voters in Iran had a choice on Friday between six candidates to replace incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but none is seen as challenging the Islamic Republic’s 34-year-old system of clerical rule.
The European Union and the U.S. have imposed sanctions aimed at discouraging Tehran’s nuclear programme. Iran insists that its atomic programme is for peaceful purposes.
The sanctions do not target food or animal feed shipments, but financial measures have frozen Iranian companies out of much of the global banking system, which have hindered payments.
Oil revenues frozen
Iran, a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), has oil revenues of billions of dollars in local currencies frozen in bank accounts in countries such as Turkey and India, which trade sources said were likely to have been tapped for the latest buying campaign.
Those accounts can be used to make food purchases in other countries as the sales are deemed to be for humanitarian goods.
“Using these accounts has certainly helped ease the payment issues they had a few months ago,” another European source said.
A further European trader said separately: “Iran is no longer paying for wheat using letters of credit as ever fewer banks are willing to process Iranian trade finance.
“Iran is having to pay cash and exporters are demanding 20 per cent payment up front and will not load anything until the vessels are fully paid for.”
Traders said the latest deals were in multiple currencies.
The Middle East-based trader said Iran was estimated to have paid the equivalent of $315 to $320 per tonne. European traders put the price at around $330 a tonne. By contrast, Tunisia paid $274.68 a tonne for wheat this week.
The Middle East-based trader said Iran was using big panamax ships, capable of carrying 60,000-tonne cargoes.
“Iran’s ports can handle panamax vessels and they are buying cargoes for transport on larger ships. So this gives an idea of their need for bigger quantities at the moment,” he said.
The origins of the latest purchases could include the Baltic states, Germany, Kazakhstan and possibly Russia, traders said.
The International Grains Council currently forecasts Iran’s imports will fall to 3.1 million tonnes in 2013-14 from 5.1 million tonnes in the previous year when the country added to its wheat stocks. But traders are expecting higher imports of four to five million tonnes.
— Jonathan Saul and Michael Hogan report for Reuters from London and Hamburg respectively. Additional reporting for Reuters by Gus Trompiz in Paris.