* Turkey’s gold exports to Iran at nine tonnes in March
* Exports of $480 million highest since records from 2010
* Iranians turn to gold for trade and savings
By Behiye Taner
ISTANBUL, May 17 (Reuters) - Turkish gold sales to Iran in March soared over 30 times and gold companies said Iranians were turning to gold for savings and possibly trade as Western sanctions tighten.
Sanctions to force Iran to curb its nuclear programme have targeted its energy and banking sectors and new measures from both the United States and European Union take effect in July, aimed at strangling Tehran’s foreign earnings.
The sanctions have made neighbouring Turkey an ever more important channel for the Islamic republic.
Data from Turkey’s Statistics Institute on Thursday showed gold exports to Iran rose to nine tonnes, worth $480 million, in March, from 286 kg a year earlier and compared to just 30 kg in February this year.
They were the highest monthly exports to Iran since records started in 2010. Total gold exports were 11.1 tonnes in March.
“It wouldn’t be wrong to say Iran chooses Turkey for gold imports because of embargoes,” said Gokhan Aksu, vice chairman of Istanbul Gold Refinery, one of Turkey’s biggest gold firms.
“Iranians prefer jewels and precious stones to protect the value of their money and escape instability,” he told Reuters.
Turkey’s trade with Iran is politically sensitive and one gold company official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said gold could also be in use for trade as sanctions made regular currency transactions harder.
“Some payments may be made in gold because of problems in transferring money to Iran,” he said. “For the most part, I think gold may be replacing money transfers in trade with Iran.”
Turkey has become an increasingly important gold producer over the last 12 years, producing 25 tonnes last year. It imported about 80 tonnes last year, but most was for re-export to unstable neighbours which also include Syria and Iraq, one gold company executive said.
Iran’s annual gold consumption was put at 300 tonnes by the head of its gold and jewellery association, according to a report from state news agency IRNA in February, but the lack of official data makes it hard to gauge.
Dubai is also an important centre for Iranian gold buyers.
Uncertainty in Iran has taken its toll on the rial currency, which fell as low as 19,000 to the dollar in late March from 12,000 in mid-2011 before recovering to 16,000 after Iran re-entered talks with world powers.
“It’s natural that savings are made in gold in Iran,” said Ozgur Altug, chief economist at BGC Partners in Istanbul.
Talks between Iran and world powers resume in Baghdad on May 23. Western countries suspect Iran is trying to enrich uranium to build atomic bombs. Iran says its nuclear programme has only peaceful ends.
The U.S. Senate was due to consider a new package of sanctions on Thursday. In another indication of the impact of sanctions, petrochemical exports have plunged 90 percent in the last two weeks.