Under sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its allies, dollars are hard to come by in Iran. The rial fell from 20,160 against the greenback on the street market in August to 36,500 rials to the dollar in October. It’s settled, for now, around 27,000. The central bank’s fixed official rate is 12,260. Yet there’s one currency in Iran that has kept its value and can be used to purchase goods from abroad: bitcoins, the online-only currency.
Created in 2009 by a mysterious programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto, bitcoins behave a lot like any currency. Their value is determined by demand, and they can be used to buy stuff. Bitcoin transactions are encrypted and handled by a decentralized global network of tens of thousands of personal computers. Merchants around the world accept the currency, from a bakery in San Francisco to a dentist in Finland. Individuals who own bitcoins and wish to exchange them for physical currencies like euros or dollars can use exchange sites such as localbitcoins.com, a Finland-based site founded by Jeremias Kangas. “I believe that bitcoin is, or will be in the future, a very effective tool for individuals who want to avoid sanctions, currency restrictions, and high inflation in countries such as Iran,” Kangas wrote in an e-mail.
The advantage for Iranians is that bitcoins can be swapped for dollars that can then be kept outside the country. Another plus: Regulators can’t easily track the transactions, since bitcoins aren’t issued from a central server. Bitcoin users can conduct business on virtual private networks, which hide customers’ identities.