By Jonathan Saul and Michael Hogan
LONDON/HAMBURG (Reuters) - Almost half a million metric tonnes of grain has arrived at Iran's major food port and Turkish banks are being used by the Islamic Republic as an alternative trade financing route to sidestep Western sanctions, trade sources say.
Iran has been shopping for wheat at a frantic pace, ordering a large part of its expected yearly requirement in a little over one month and paying a premium in non-dollar currencies to work around toughened sanctions and avoid social unrest.
"With any number of unknowns out there - a potential attack on its nuclear facilities, the possibility that a different administration takes office in the United States, the regime is prudently laying aside (food) stocks in the event things go very wrong," said J. Peter Pham, a director with U.S. think tank the Atlantic Council.
Food shipments are not targeted under western sanctions aimed at Iran's disputed nuclear program, but financial measures have frozen Iranian firms out of much of the global banking system. State-run Government Trading Corporation (GTC) has stepped in to make recent purchases as private Iranian buyers have been sidelined.
"There is not a problem with payments, things are settling down using non-sanctioned banks," one trade source said. "The GTC is using Turkish banks to make payments."
Iran bought around 2 million tonnes of wheat just last month from Russia, Germany, Canada, Brazil and Australia.
Sanctions are worsening an economic crisis which has caused rising prices, shortages of some goods and a collapse of the local currency at a time when other countries in the Middle East are experiencing political and social unrest.
WORKING AROUND THE EMBARGO
Trade sources said Iran was making payments in euros and also U.S. dollars via non-sanctioned banks.
"Apart from Turkish banks, Iran is also facilitating deals via Switzerland and is also using cash in smaller trades as well as even gold," another trade source said. "They are working around the restrictions."
AIS ship tracking data on Reuters showed 12 dry bulk vessels on Friday were anchored outside Bandar Imam Khomeini, one of Iran's largest grain terminals.
At least six of the vessels were larger ships known as panamaxes, which can carry around 60,000 tonnes of grains. A further panamax was on its way to the terminal. Four vessels including one panamax ship had left the port area for new destinations in recent days after unloading, data showed.
"It is still hard to assess the volume of wheat Iran has bought on international markets in recent weeks," another trade source said. "Conservative estimates are 1.5 million tonnes others put the figure at well over 2 million tonnes."
"Most of this is for nearby shipment so I would expect more ships to be arriving in Iranian Gulf ports in coming weeks."
Earlier this month it was revealed Iran had made rare purchases of around 180,000 tonnes of U.S. wheat. Trade sources said there was growing talk of further U.S. purchases despite the escalating standoff with Washington and its allies.
Iran continues to seek large volumes of wheat from sources out of reach of western sanctions. Pakistani officials said on Monday a barter deal for 1 million tonnes had been reached, but an Indian trade delegation failed to agree rupee-based wheat sales.
Payment problems resulting from sanctions halted some deliveries to private Iranian buyers since the start of this year. Ten vessels turned away from Iran to new destinations including Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, incurring big losses. The last of them sailed away earlier this month.
"Iran has a lot of money and after a few early problems things are flowing," another trade source said. "We are being paid via Turkey."
The Atlantic Council's Pham said the U.S. was reluctant to impose onerous trade burdens on allies. Earlier this week it granted waivers to Japan and 10 EU countries from financial sanctions after they cut their Iranian oil import purchases.
"The Iranians took it as a signal that if they structured their deals in a complex enough fashion and selected as their partners nominal U.S. allies whom Washington would be loath to have an open and complete rupture with, they might just be allowed to get away with it. Turkey is a good example," he said.
(Editing by Keiron Henderson)