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Ships with one million tonnes of grain stuck outside Iran's ports

      10/03/2019

More than 20 ships carrying around one million tonnes of grain are stuck outside Iranian ports as U.S. sanctions create payment problems and hamper the country's efforts to import vital commodities, sources directly involved in the trade said.

Trading companies such as Bunge and China’s COFCO International have been hit by payment delays and additional costs of up to $15,000 a day as the renewed U.S. restrictions stifle the processing of transactions, trade sources said.

Food, medicine and other humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions Washington re-imposed after U.S. President Donald Trump said he was walking away from a 2015 international deal over Iran's nuclear programme.

But the U.S. measures targeting everything from oil sales to shipping and financial activities have deterred several foreign banks from doing any Iranian business, including humanitarian deals such as food shipments.

The few remaining lenders still processing Iranian business face multiple hurdles to facilitate payments as financing channels freeze up.

Six Western and Iranian sources said the situation was contributing to the cargoes being held up for more than a month outside Iran's biggest ports for goods, Bandar Imam Khomeini and Bandar Abbas.

The ships are carrying cargoes including soybeans and corn mostly from South America, the sources said. The grain vessels are also visible through ship tracking data.

"There are no restrictions on humanitarian business, but you can't get paid for it," one European source said. "You can be waiting for months to get a payment."

Another source said: "There is nervousness among traders about making more sales to Iran before the backlog (of ships) is cleared."

A senior Iranian port official, who declined to be named, told Reuters there had been problems since U.S. sanctions were imposed on its financial system in November 2018.

"What has changed is that now the number of banks, traders that are staying away from doing business with Iran is increasing," the official said.

Separate U.S. sanctions imposed in September on Iran's central bank - following attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia that U.S. officials blamed on Tehran - have added to difficulties with transactions.

The Iranian port official said these latest sanctions would scare away banks.

"Some small banks that we used to work with have informed us that they will no longer do business with us," he added, declining to name the banks.

An official with Iran's agriculture ministry said separately that Tehran had since the 1980s aimed to ensure the country had sufficient stocks of grain.

"We have increased the amount of stockpiles because of Trump's policy towards Iran and tensions in the past months," the official said. "It is becoming more and more difficult because of the sanctions."

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated last month that Iran’s total cereal stocks in 2019 would total 5.1 million tonnes, falling to 4.8 million tonnes in 2020, versus 9.9 million tonnes in 2016.