How Bitcoin Could Help Iran Undermine U.S. Sanctions
TEHRAN — Stepping from a car into a muddy industrial site in the Iranian desert, a 22-year old European Bitcoin investor raised his voice to be heard over the roar of a gas-fired generator.His Iranian counterparts — a bespectacled information-technology specialist, a self-described ‘‘hard-core Bitcoiner’’ and the businessman running the site — walked their foreign visitor over to gray shipping containers containing thousands of small computers. When completed and connected to the power grid, the computers would help process a cryptocurrency that, in theory at least, could enable Iran to evade United States sanctions.
The value of Bitcoin, the dominant online currency in the world, is treacherously unpredictable. But it is an emerging front in the economic war between Washington and Tehran.
Iran’s economy has been hobbled by banking sanctions that effectively stop foreign companies from doing business in the country. But transactions in Bitcoin, difficult to trace, could allow Iranians to make international payments while bypassing the American restrictions on banks.
In the past, the threat of United States sanctions has been enough to squelch most business with Iran, but the anonymous payments made in Bitcoin could change that. While Washington could still monitor and intimidate major companies, countless small and midsize companies could exploit Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to conduct business under American radar.
The United States Treasury, well aware of the threat, is attempting to bring Bitcoin and the others into line. In recent weeks, in response to an internet fraud case originating from Iran, the Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranians and the Bitcoin addresses, or ‘‘wallets,’’ they had used for trading in the currency.
The Treasury also has warned digital marketplaces that buy and sell Bitcoin and companies that sell computers used to process Bitcoin transactions that they should not provide services to Iranians. Several well-known trading sites are now blocking buyers and sellers from Iran. Some have confiscated money belonging to clients based in Iran.
“Treasury will aggressively pursue Iran and other rogue regimes attempting to exploit digital currencies,” the department said in a statement.
But by their nature, cryptocurrencies are uncontrolled by any person or entity. At best, efforts to regulate or monitor trade in them are episodic, whack-a-mole affairs. With Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, there is simply no way to duplicate the banking sanctions that have proved so damaging to the Iranian economy.
Bitcoin transactions are recorded on a digital ledger or database known as the blockchain, maintained communally by many independent computers. The system is designed explicitly to avoid central banks and large financial institutions. Like emails delivered without going through a central postal service, the computer network maintaining Bitcoin records enables the movement of money without going through any central authority.
The Iranian government has been slow to recognize the potential sanctions-evading possibilities of Bitcoin. But it is now considering the establishment of exchanges to facilitate trading, one official, Abdolhassan Firouzabadi, said recently. Despite the failure of Venezuela’s state-backed cryptocurrency, the Petro, Iran’s central bank said recently that it was seriously considering creation of something similar, possibly called the Crypto-Rial, named after the national currency, the rial.
Still, Iran’s venture into Bitcoin pales in comparison to what has been happening the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where thousands of people have jumped into the cryptocurrency business.
At the computerized processing operation in the Iranian desert, no one seemed particularly concerned with the geopolitical implications of Bitcoin.
The operation consisted of 2,800 computers from China, fitted into eight containers, which when linked are called a farm. It makes intense mathematical calculations, known as mining, needed to confirm Bitcoin transactions. Miners collect fees in Bitcoin for their services.
Ignoring the rain, the European visitor used the calculator on his mobile phone to determine how much money could be made from this particular farm, multiplying computer power and deducting electricity and operational costs.
He estimated about five Bitcoins a month, which at roughly $4,000 per Bitcoin at current price levels, would be about $20,000.
“Not too bad,” he said.
The currency fluctuates like any other, though it has proved particularly volatile, sinking to slightly less than $4,000 a unit from nearly $20,000 about a year ago.
“We’ll have two engineers on site to keep everything running, that’s it,” said Behzad, the chief executive of IranAsic, the company running the site. He, like the European investor, did not want to provide his family name, out of fear of penalties from the United States.
The Chinese computers, called A9Antminers, were regarded as outdated by the European visitor. Still, he said, “I guess this is the last place on earth where they are still profitable.”
That helps explain why Iran seems to be taking its first baby steps toward becoming a global center for mining Bitcoins. Because of generous government subsidies, electricity — the energy for the computers needed to process cryptocurrency transactions — costs little in Iran. It goes for about six-tenths of a cent per kilowatt-hour, compared with an average of 12 cents in the United States and 35 cents in Germany.
In recent months, dozens of foreign investors from Europe, Russia and Asia have considered moving their mining operations to Iran and other low-cost countries like Georgia. “We have to be flexible in this industry and go where prices are the lowest in order to survive,” said the European investor.
Along on the inspection tour was a self-described ‘‘hard-core Bitcoiner,’’ Ziya Sadr, a bearded 25-year old with a beanie and a backpack full of hard drives and USB keys containing his personal stash of the currency. “It helps me to pay to outsource jobs, or allows foreign companies to pay me,” he said.
Mr. Sadr said he was currently engineering website products for foreign clients and getting paid in Bitcoin. “These are not huge projects,” he said, “but had it not been for Bitcoin, I wouldn’t have been able get the contracts and get paid here in Iran.”
Had Mr. Sadr tried any of these transactions through conventional financial institutions, his account would likely have been blocked.
While Mr. Sadr’s transactions are small, some larger companies are starting to use Bitcoin to make payments and circumvent the sanctions. Europeans and Asian counterparts are increasingly cooperative, as their governments opposed the Trump administration’s decision to renounce the nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions.
“There is no other way for us, Bitcoin cannot be sanctioned by anyone” said Mr. Sadr, who has discussed Bitcoin with Iranian government officials. “Not by the U.S. government or any other government or other financial entities.”
Not quite. As its recent sanctioning of two digital currency addresses, or wallets, and their two Iranian owners showed, the United States Treasury can disrupt cryptocurrency trades, even if only a minuscule fraction of the total. New anonymous wallets can be created for free within minutes.
The Treasury’s move came after the Justice Department had indicted two other Iranians on charges of having used ‘‘Samsam’’ ransomware in a sophisticated scheme of attacks on American hospitals, government agencies and the city of Atlanta. The two men, Faramarz Shahi Savandi and Mohammad Mehdi Shah Mansouri, are now wanted by the F.B.I. and are thought to be hiding in Iran.
During the attack on Atlanta, one of the most serious cyberattacks against a major American city, the pair broke into its computer systems and held the data hostage, eventually ransoming it for about $51,000 worth of Bitcoin. They made around $6 million in Bitcoin from the attacks, prosecutors said.
When the hackers wanted to exchange their Bitcoin for Iranian rials they contacted two local traders through WhatsApp. The traders, Ali Khorashadizadeh, 29, and Mohammad Ghorbaniyan, 31, exchanged some into rials.
When on Nov. 28 a friend told Mr. Ghorbaniyan his name was in the news, he thought it was a mistake. He discovered that the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control had placed him and Mr. Khorashadizadeh under sanctions, as well as the Bitcoin addresses they had used. Those addresses had been linked to their websites, making their names traceable.
“Please let it be known that, like every trader or bank, I have no knowledge how my clients get their money,” Mr. Ghorbaniyan said. “I just trade. I’m not a hacker. I have nothing to do with those guys.”
By the next week, however, Mr. Ghorbaniyan was back in business, using a new — this time anonymous — Bitcoin address he created in five minutes. “Perhaps my name remains sanctioned, but we don’t use names online,” he said.
Mr. Ghorbaniyan said his only mistake had been making his Bitcoin address public. “Basically, Treasury just Googled me,” he said. “I’m not making the same mistake again.”