The last three years of global recession have dealt a major blow to American capitalist ideas trumpeted throughout the world on the value of "free markets." Wall St has been revealed as a form of casino economy, with the bankster insiders gambling with other people's, and eventually, the government's money in the form of bailouts. As the Republicans in Congress, scenting victory in the 2012 presidential elections, hold a gun to the Obama administration's head and rating agencies consider downgrading U.S. government bonds in light of Washington's possible defaulting, many ideas around the world that previously seemed implausible because of the dominance of the U.S. economy are garnering renewed interest.
Not surprisingly, many of these concepts originate in countries not enamored with Washington's influence, perhaps none so more than "Axis of Evil" charter member Iran, which has seen its economy hammered by more than three decades of U.S.-led sanctions. Now Iran is working a program, that, if it succeeds, could help undermine the dollar's preeminence as the world's reserve currency more effectively than a Republican filibuster.
Iran's sly weapon against the Great Satan's currency? An oil bourse on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf, which has now begun selling high-grade Iranian crude oil.
Mohsen Qamsari, deputy director for international affairs of the Iranian National Oil Company was modest about the exchange's initial capabilities, saying, "The commodity stock exchange has been pursuing a mechanism for offering crude oil on the stock exchange for a long time, and it has taken the preliminary steps, to the extent possible. Considering the existing banking problems, foreign customers are not expected to be taking part in the first phase of offering crude oil on the stock exchange, and this will be done on a trial basis. Today Bahregan heavy, high quality, low sulfur crude oil with less sourness will be offered on the stock exchange for the first time. In the first phase, a 600,000 barrel shipment will be offered."
Given that the world currently consumes roughly 83 million barrels of crude oil each day, the initial oil offerings at the Iranian stock exchange are hardly going to make or break the market, but they do represent an attempt by a significant oil producer to divert revenue streams from New York Mercantile Exchange, the world's largest physical commodity futures exchange, which handles West Texas Intermediate benchmark futures, and London's Intercontinental Exchange, which deals in North Sea Brent. All trades are in dollars, effectively giving the U.S. currency a monopoly.
The Kish Exchange dates back to February 2008, when instead of Tehran, Kish was chosen because it had designated as a free trade zone. The Exchange was set up to trade contracts in euros, Iranian rials and a basket of other currencies other than dollars. The previous year, Iran had requested that its petroleum customers pay in non-dollar currencies. But the Exchange initially traded contracts only for oil-derived products, such as those used as feedstocks for plastics and pharmaceuticals. Now the institution has taken the next step.
Even as Congress remains tone-deaf to the recession's effect on American jobs and the economy, others have taken careful note. On 17 June 2008, addressing the 29th meeting of the Council of Ministers of the OPEC Fund for International Development in the Iranian city of Isfahan, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told those in attendance, "The fall in the value of the dollar is one of the biggest problems facing the world today. The damage caused by this has already affected the global economy, particularly those of the energy-exporting countries...
Therefore, I repeat my earlier suggestion, that a combination of the world's valid currencies should become a basis for oil transactions, or (OPEC) member countries should determine a new currency for oil transactions."
What it would take for Iran's new exchange to survive and flourish are some heavy-duty customers that Washington would be wary of picking a fight with, and Tehran already has one - China.
China, the world's largest buyer of Iranian crude oil, has renewed its annual import pacts for 2011. In 2010 Iran supplied about 12 percent of China's total crude imports. According to the latest report of the China Customs Organization, Iran's total oil exports to China stood at 8.549 million tons between January and April 2011, up 32 percent compared with the same period last year. Iran is currently China's third largest supplier of crude oil, providing China with nearly one million barrels per day.
China simply ignores Washington's squeals about sanctions, but it is concerned about the bottom line, and unless Iran makes its oil prices more attractive versus competing supplies from the rest of the Middle East or South American exporters, it may be hard for the OPEC member to boost its share in the rapidly expanding Chinese market.
Enter the Kish Exchange.
China's Ambassador to Tehran Yu Hung Yang, addressing the Iran-China trade conference in Tehran on Monday, said that the value of the two countries' trade exchanges surged 55 percent during the first four months of 2011 over the same period a year ago to $13.28 billion and further predicted that the figure would surpass $40 billion by the end of the year.
So much for sanctions, eh?
So, while Washington prepares to commit political hara-kiri, Iran is preparing to take away a little of the capitalist glow from New York and London. If the Chinese decide to start paying for their Iranian purchases strictly in yuan, expect the trickle away from the dollar in energy pricing to become a stampede. That ought to give Washington politicos an issue to think about besides gay marriage.
By John C.K. Daly of OilPrice.com