U.S. exports to Iran rose by nearly a third this year, chiefly because of grain sales, according to U.S. data released last week, despite the tightening of U.S. financial sanctions, Reuters reported.
The jump to $199.5 million in the first eight months of 2012 from $150.8 million a year earlier, according to Census Bureau data, is surprising given Western efforts to isolate Iran economically because of its suspected pursuit of nuclear arms.
The increase masks a drop in the export of some humanitarian goods such as medicines, a decline U.S. exporters blame largely on the difficulty of getting paid by Iranian importers because of new U.S. financial sanctions.
But it also shows that goods such as milk products and medical equipment - whose sale to Iran is allowed with a Treasury Department export license - continue to flow despite the sanctions and the payments difficulties.
The United States, its European allies and other nations have imposed the sanctions to force Iran to halt its uranium enrichment program and address questions about its nuclear programs.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear arms and says its atomic program is solely for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity and producing medical isotopes.
The economic penalties are one side of a two-pronged policy that also includes talks to seek a diplomatic solution. But that has been somewhat overshadowed this year by the possibility of Israeli or U.S. military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.
The largest category of U.S. exports to Iran through August, 2012 was $89.2 million in sales of wheat and other grains. During the same 2011 period, the United States exported no wheat or such grains to Iran, though it sold $21 million of maize.
Without the wheat sales, U.S. exports to Iran would have declined through August overall, sharply in some cases.
Medicinal and pharmaceutical products, including those sold in bulk and those for animals, fell to $14.9 million from $26.7 million. Pulp and waste paper, a category that includes the raw material for diapers, sank to $17.4 million from $40.9 million.
However, exports rose in several other categories. Sales of milk products including cream, butter and other fats and oils derived from dairy more than doubled to $20.3 million from $7.8 million.
Medical, dental, surgical and other "electro-diagnostic apparatus" rose to $8 million from $4.7 million.
Although Iran can still import such goods, U.S. companies have complained for months that it is harder and harder to get paid because Iran's big banks have been blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury for alleged support for terrorism or involvement in the its alleged weapons of mass destruction programs.
While some Iranian banks are not blacklisted, these tend to be smaller institutions with limited access to foreign exchange.
The possibility one of these might obtain hard currency from a blacklisted Iranian institution has spooked foreign banks, who fear that they might be accused of having "indirectly" dealt with a designated Iranian bank, sanctions lawyers say.
As a result, groups ranging from religious-affiliated non-profits to liberal members of Congress to the U.S. Dairy Export Council have argued for ensuring that the banking sanctions do not choke off humanitarian trade.
Edited by: S. Isayev