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Iranians say sanctions hurt them, not government

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Ali Ganjineh, an Iranian petroleum engineer working abroad, has saved enough money to buy a $300,000 house in his homeland.

An Iranian customer counts banknotes before paying a cashier at a cooperative shopping centre in Tehran Oct. 24, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

But U.N. and other sanctions prevent him from sending the funds to Tehran, so his planned home purchase has fallen victim to the Islamic state’s nuclear stand-off with the West.

“I have been working so hard to save the money. Now, because of the nuclear dispute, international banks refuse to wire it to Iran,” said the 29-year-old, who works 36 weeks a year for an oil company in Kazakhstan.

The United Nations has imposed two sets of sanctions on Iran over its disputed atomic ambitions. In addition, Washington has blacklisted Iran’s three main state banks and, under U.S. pressure, European banks have also pulled out.

Western powers, which accuse Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear bombs, hope the pressure will persuade its clerical leadership to give up the nuclear program.

With oil nearing $100 a barrel, the leadership of the world’s fourth-largest crude producer is reaping windfall gains and insists the sanctions have had no impact.

However, Ganjineh and other relatively well-off Iranians believe they, not the government, are the ones paying the price.

And experts say sanctions are crimping foreign investment, fuelling inflation in an economy where cash is brought in by the bagload, and making it harder to import medicine.

BANKS CUT TIES

Banks HSBC, Credit Suisse and UBS cut business ties with Iran last year followed by Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank and BNP Paribas in 2007.

“Almost every month we get notes from European banks about ceasing their cooperation with Iran,” said an employee of an Iranian bank, who asked not to be identified.

A doctor, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We cannot open Letters of Credit in banks. Importing necessary material for medicines to treat patients who suffer cancer is becoming more difficult every day.”

Personal stories are common of how the financial sanctions are affecting those mostly well-off people who have foreign bank accounts or earn income from abroad.

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Some say they will leave Iran if the United Nations imposes tougher sanctions; others are forced to use unofficial channels to get their cash.

Maryam Sharifa is one of many Iranians whose dollar account with a Western bank was closed in the past few months. Like many Iranians who lived abroad, she had kept her account open since returning to Iran.

“I had this account for 13 years in France. Do I look like a terrorist? Should I be punished just for being an Iranian?” said the 39-year-old mother of two. “I had to bring all that money with me here and buy a small apartment in Tehran.”

Mehrdad Salahshour, a computer technician at a Western firm in Tehran, has not received his salary for three months.

“I unsuccessfully tried to open a dollar account abroad. My company helped me to open a euro account in Turkey. But then most of international banks stopped working with Iran,” he said.

Now like many others, he uses the informal money transfer outlets known as hawala brokers, who for a fee accept funds in another country and pay a beneficiary in Iran. That system generates little paper trail, and U.S. officials have said they fear it could be abused to launder and move terrorist funds.

Even foreigners in Iran have been told by international banks that their dollar accounts will be closed and credit cards cancelled because they live in the Islamic state.

Escalating rhetoric between the two old foes has sparked speculation of U.S. military action even though Washington says it is committed to resolving the nuclear row diplomatically.

Some well-educated Iranians have already packed to leave.

“I do not want my children to suffer like those innocent Iraqi children because of America’s mistakes,” said artist Sepideh Shams. “When America’s threats become more tangible, I will leave Iran for good.”

CASH IN BAGS

For others, it is not the uncertainty of tomorrow but the realities of today that hit hardest.

“We are the victims of the sanctions, not the government,” said Mohammad Rezamanesh, 47, a teacher in the central city of Isfahan, earning $250 per month to support a family of four.

“Everyone uses the excuse of sanctions to increase prices,” he said, voicing a common complaint in Iran, where the official inflation rate exceeds 18 percent.

Sociologist Hamid Razeghi said the sanctions had created a vulnerable society: “People cannot make mid-term and long-term plans. They believe there is no political, economic or security stability.”

Iranian analysts say currency flows into the country have actually increased since sanctions were first imposed in December 2006, driven by wealthy Iranians repatriating financial assets through back door methods.

“Huge amounts of money have been transferred to Iran,” said economist Mohsen Jafarinejad.

Touraj, a 54-year-old construction engineer, said he regularly travels abroad to bring back bags of cash to Iran, where property prices have shot up.

“A lack of alternative investment opportunities is pushing people to invest in real estate,” he said, giving his first name only.

Whatever the difficulties for those using official channels, expensive cars on the streets of Tehran show there is still considerable wealth in the country.

“Everything depends on God. If you are a real believer, then you should not be afraid of sanctions or a military strike,” businessman Ali Hashemi said, parking his new Toyota outside his luxury home.

Editing by Sara Ledwith and Alison Williams

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