The agreement between the Central Banks of Russia and Iran formally signed on 29 January connecting their interbank transfer systems is a game-changer in more ways than one.
Technically, from now on 52 Iranian banks already using SEPAM, Iran’s interbank telecom system, are connecting with 106 banks using SPFS, Russia’s equivalent to the western banking messaging system SWIFT.
Less than a week before the deal, State Duma Chairman Vyachslav Volodin was in Tehran overseeing the last-minute details, part of a meeting of the Russia-Iran Inter-Parliamentary Commission on Cooperation: he was adamant both nations should quickly increase trade in their own currencies.
Confirming that the share of ruble and rial in mutual settlements already exceeds 60 percent, Volodin ratified the success of “joint use of the Mir and Shetab national payment systems.” Not only does this bypass western sanctions, but it is able to “solve issues related to mutually beneficial cooperation, and increasing trade.”
It is quite possible that the ruble will eventually become the main currency in bilateral trade, according to Iran’s ambassador in Moscow, Kazem Jalali: “Now more than 40 percent of trade between our countries is in rubles.”
Jalali also confirmed, crucially, that Tehran is in favor of the ruble as the main currency in all regional integration mechanisms. He was referring particularly to the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), with which Iran is clinching a free trade deal.
The SEPAM-SPFS agreement starts with a pilot program supervised by Iran’s Shahr Bank and Russia’s VTB Bank. Other lenders will step in once the pilot program gets rid of any possible bugs.
The key advantage is that SEPAM and SPFS are immune to the US and western sanctions ruthlessly imposed on Tehran and Moscow. Once the full deal is up and running, all Iranian and Russian banks can be interconnected.
It is no wonder the Global South is paying very close attention. This is likely to become a landmark case in bypassing Belgium-based SWIFT – which is essentially controlled by Washington, and on a minor scale, the EU. The success of SEPAM-SPFS will certainly encourage other bilateral or even multilateral deals between states.
It’s all about the INSTC
The Central Banks of Iran and Russia are also working to establish a stable coin for foreign trade, replacing the US dollar, the ruble, and the rial. This would be a digital currency backed by gold, to be used mostly in the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) of Astrakhan, in the Caspian Sea, already very busy moving plenty of Iranian cargo.
Astrakhan happens to be the key Russian hub of the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC), a vast network of ship, rail, and road routes which will drastically increase trade from Russia – but also parts of Europe – across Iran to West Asia and South Asia, and vice-versa.
And that reflects the full geoconomic dimension of the SEPAM-SPFS deal. The Russian Central Bank moved early to set up SPFS in 2014, when Washington began threatening Moscow with expulsion from SWIFT. Merging it with the Iranian SEPAM opens up a whole new horizon, especially given Iran’s ratification as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), and now a leading candidate to join the extended BRICS+ club.
Already three months before the SEPAM-SPFS agreement, the Russian Trade Representative in Iran, Rustam Zhiganshin, was hinting that the decision “to create an analog of the SWIFT system” was a done deal.
Tehran had been preparing the infrastructure to join Russia’s Mir payment system since last summer. But after Moscow was hit with extremely harsh western sanctions and Russian banks were cut off from SWIFT, Tehran and Moscow decided, strategically, to focus on creating their own non-SWIFT for cross-border payments.
All that relates to the immensely strategic geoeconomic role of the INSTC, which is a much cheaper and faster trade corridor than the old Suez Canal route.
Russia is Iran’s largest foreign investor
Moreover, Russia has become Iran’s largest foreign investor, according to Iranian Deputy Finance Minister Ali Fekri: this includes “$2.7 billion worth of investment to two petroleum projects in Iran’s western province of Ilam in the past 15 months.” That’s about 45 percent of the total foreign investment in Iran over the October 2021 – January 2023 period.
Of course the whole process is in its initial stages – as Russia-Iran bilateral trade amounts to only US$3 billion annually. But a boom is inevitable, due to the accumulated effect of SEPAM-SPFS, INSTC, and EAEU interactions, and especially further moves to develop Iran’s energy capacity, logistics, and transport networks, via the INSTC.
Russian projects in Iran are multi-faceted: energy, railways, auto manufacturing, and agriculture. In parallel, Iran supplies Russia with food and automotive products.
Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, is fond of reminding anyone that Russia and Iran “play complementary roles in global energy and cargo transit.” The Iran-EAEU free agreement (FTA) is nearly finalized – including zero tariffs for over 7,500 commodities.
In 2022, the EAEU traded more than $800 billion worth of goods. Iran’s full access to the EAEU will be inestimable in terms of providing a market gateway to large swathes of Eurasia – and bypassing US sanctions as a sweet perk. A realistic projection is that Tehran can expect $15 billion annual trade with the five members of the EAEU in five years, as soon as Iran becomes the sixth member.
The legacy of Samarkand
Everything we are tracking now is in many ways a direct consequence of the SCO summit in Samarkand last September, when Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, in person, placed their bet on strengthening the multipolar world as Iran signed a memorandum to join the SCO.
Putin’s private talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Samarkand were all about deep strategy.
The INSTC is absolutely crucial in this overall equation. Both Russia and Iran are investing at least $25 billion to boost its capabilities.
Ships sailing the Don and Volga Rivers have always traded energy and agricultural commodities. Now Iran’s Maritime News Agency has confirmed that Russia will grant their ships the right of passage along the inland waterways on the Don and Volga.
Meanwhile, Iran is already established as the third largest importer of Russian grain. From now on, trade on turbines, polymers, medical supplies, and automotive parts will be on a roll.
Tehran and Moscow have signed a contract to build a large cargo vessel for Iran to be used at the Caspian port of Solyanka. And RZD logistics, a subsidiary of Russian railway RZD, operates container cargo trains regularly from Moscow to Iran. The Russian Journal for Economics predicts that just the freight traffic on INTSC could reach 25 million tons by 2030 – no less than a 20-fold increase compared to 2022.
Inside Iran, new terminals are nearly ready for cargo to be rolled off ships to railroads crisscrossing the country from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf. Sergey Katrin, head of Russia’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is confident that once the FTA with the EAEU is on, bilateral trade can soon reach $40 billion a year.
Tehran’s plans are extremely ambitious, inserted in an “Eastern Axis” framework that privileges regional states Russia, China, India, and Central Asia.
Geostrategically and geoeconomically, that implies a seamless interconnection of INSTC, EAEU, SCO, and BRICS+. And all of this is coordinated by the one Quad that really matters: Russia, China, India, and Iran.
Of course there will be problems. The intractable Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict might be able to derail the INSTC: but note that Russia-Iran connections via the Caspian can easily bypass Baku if the need arises.
BRICS+ will cement the dollar’s descent
Apart from Russia and Iran, Russia and China have also been trying to interface their banking messaging systems for years now. The Chinese CBIBPS (Cross-Border Inter-Bank Payments System) is considered top class. The problem is that Washington has directly threatened to expel Chinese banks from SWIFT if they interconnect with Russian banks.
The success of SEPAM-SPFS may allow Beijing to go for broke – especially now, after the extremely harsh semiconductor war and the appalling balloon farce. In terms of sovereignty, it is clear that China will not accept US restrictions on how to move its own funds.
In parallel, the BRICS in 2023 will delve deeper into developing their mutual financial payments system and their own reserve currency. There are no less than 13 confirmed candidates eager to join BRICS+ – including Asian middle powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia.
All eyes will be on whether – and how – the $30 trillion-plus indebted US will threaten to expel BRICS+ from SWIFT.
It’s enlightening to remember that Russia’s debt to GDP ratio stands at only 17 percent. China’s is 77 percent. The current BRICS without Russia are at 78 percent. BRICS+ including Russia may average only 55 percent. Strong productivity ahead will come from a BRICS+ supported by a gold and/or commodities-backed currency and a different payment system that bypasses the US dollar. Strong productivity definitely will not come from the collective west whose economies are entering recessionary times.
Amid so many intertwined developments, and so many challenges, one thing is certain. The SEPAM-SPFS deal between Russia and Iran may be just the first sign of the tectonic plates movement in global banking and payment systems.
Welcome to one, two, one thousand payment messaging systems. And welcome to their unification in a global network. Of course that will take time. But this high-speed financial train has already left the station.
Author: Pepe Escobar