Iran spent nearly twice as much on U.S. imports during President Barack Obama’s first months in office as it did during the same period in 2008, showing that despite trade penalties and tense relations, the two countries are still doing business.

The U.S. exported $96 million in goods to Iran from January through April, according to an Associated Press analysis of U.S. government trade data compiled by the World Institute for Strategic Economic Research in Holyoke, Mass. U.S. exports to Iran totaled $51 million during the same period in 2008 and $27 million over those months in 2007.

Soybeans, wheat and medical supplies — all considered humanitarian items exempt from U.S. trade sanctions — are among the top exports this year.

The latest trade figures reflect an increase in Iran’s agricultural imports over the past year due to poor harvests there, said Bill Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, a business group in Washington.

"I wouldn’t read too much into it as far as trends are concerned," Reinsch said.

Reinsch said he is hearing from more businesses interested in Iran. But beyond an effort by the Obama administration to encourage talks with Iran, he hasn’t seen any policy changes that would lead to more opportunities for U.S. businesses.

Humanitarian shipments are an example of the tricky line the United States has walked in dealing with Iran — even more so during Iran’s election protests.

In allowing exports of necessities such as grain and medical supplies, the U.S. has tried to send a message to the Iranian people that it is a friend to them and has no interest in punishing them for their government’s policies. At the same time, by helping Iran feed and provide medical care to its population, Washington can’t help but provide an unintentional benefit to the Tehran government.

U.S. penalties seek to undermine that government far more than aid it, by withholding technology, equipment and money that would allow it to build its military and industrial base, particularly the oil industry.

There is a long-running debate in Congress and among trade experts over the degree to which sanctions work.


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