Middle East

Squeezing Iran: Oil and sanctions

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979 Iran's relations with the West have been rocky.

Sanctions were imposed by the US after the seizure of American hostages in the aftermath of the revolution, and the 1980 Iran-Iraq war. In recent years a fresh wave of UN sanctions has attempted to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. But what effect have these measures actually had on the country and its economy? Use the graphs below to see key economic indicators and major events over the last 30 years.

1981 1984 1995 1996 1997 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010

Oil production

Iran sanctions oil production

GDP growth

Iran sanctions oil production

Foreign direct investment

Iran sanctions oil production



Iran releases 63 American hostages taken during the 1979 revolution. Their seizure had led to economic sanctions which included the freezing of $12bn of Iranian assets. According to US officials, most were released as part of the deal for the hostages' return. But some assets - Iran says $10 billion, US says much less - remain frozen.



Further sanctions are imposed by the US following the bombing of an American marine base in Lebanon. The State Department adds Iran to a list of nations supporting terrorism and therefore subject to strict export controls.

MARCH 1995


President Clinton issues an executive order 12957 banning US investment in Iran's energy sector in response to the country's support to terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.



The US Congress approves the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, targeting firms doing business with Iran and Libya. Under the act, all foreign companies that provide investments over US $20m for the development of petroleum resources in Iran will face penalties.

JUNE 1997


Iran elects as president reformist Mohammad Khatami. His campaign pledges include greater freedom of expression, as well as measures to tackle unemployment and boost privatisation. Despite being re-elected in 2001, many of his reformist initiatives, social and political, founder on conservative resistance.

JUNE 2005


Iran elects as president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He wins a second term in controversial circumstances in June 2009, sparking nationwide protests.



The UN Security Council unanimously passes a resolution (1737) imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. The resolution orders countries to stop supplying Iran with materials and technology contributing to nuclear and missile programs. It freezes Iranian assets related to those programmes.

MARCH 2007


The UN Security Council imposes a second round of sanctions (resolution 1747) targeting Iran's nuclear programme.

MARCH 2008


The UN Security Council approves a third round of sanctions against Iran. Resolution 1803 tightens travel bans and extends financial sanctions to 12 new companies and 13 executives. Melli Bank, Iran's largest financial institution with many foreign branches, feels the blow particularly hard.

MARCH 2009


The UN Security Council votes to impose further sanctions on Iran (resolution 1929). The sanctions include cargo inspections, new controls on Iranian banks "to block the use of the international financial system... to fund and facilitate nuclear proliferation" and restrictions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

JUNE 2010


The European Union and US impose further sanctions which go further than recent UN measures. The EU bans investments, technical assistance and technology transfers to Iran's oil and gas industries, while the US imposes penalties on foreign companies which trade with Iran.

GDP: Iran's five-year economic development plans for 2000-2015 set a target of 8% growth for the country's gross domestic production (GDP), but except for few years in this period, Iran's economy has largely under-performed. It took a sharp fall in 2008 as a result of plummeting oil prices which followed global financial meltdown. Oil and gas exports constitute some 60% of Iran's revenues.

Oil Production: While showing a slow but steady increase in the past 30 years, Iran's oil production started to decline since 2005 due to lack of investment in developing current and new oil and gas fields. Iran's complicated buy-back scheme and the country's political situation have put off international oil companies from working with a country that sits on world's fourth largest oil reserves.

Foreign investment: Iran's official statistics for foreign direct investment have in the past few years been contradictory. Some official figures include memoranda of understanding which were never signed into contracts. But all statistics show a decline in foreign investment since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in 2005. Unlike his reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami who encouraged foreign investment, Mr Ahmadinejad's defiant policies have discouraged foreigners from investing in Iran.


In part the graph below reflects developments that have also affected Iran's neighbours in the Middle East and the ups and downs of the oil market. But the mark of sanctions can be seen on Iran's economy, as well as a marked pattern of Iran being forced to look to Asia to make up for lost business from the US and Europe.

In 1978, the year before the revolution, IMF data shows 80% of Iran's exports went to developed countries, with 20% of the total going to the United States.

Since then the US has all but disappeared off Iran's export map.

For the developed countries as a whole there is also a marked decline, though they remain major markets, and still account for more than 40% of Iran's exports.

So where are Iran's exports going?

Developing countries in Asia are buying a bigger share. China in particular is now Iran's biggest market of all, having bought only 1% of total exports in 1995.

For the Middle East as a whole, there are similar trends, but in relation to China they are not as striking as for Iran.

So these figures are consistent with the idea of Iran being forced to some extent to look to other markets to make up for those lost due to sanctions. But the emergence of Asia meant those new markets were not so hard to find.