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Iran's intelligence ministry said Monday it had arrested 11 "economic disruptors" who misappropriated some $400 million earmarked for essential goods and smuggled the money out of the country. Authorities have been cracking down on those seeking to exploit the collapsing rial, which has lost around half its value against the dollar this year, in part due to the return of US sanctions.

"During these sensitive economic times, this network received 47 trillion rials ($416 million at Monday's open market rate) of subsidised foreign exchange to import essential goods but instead invested them in some other countries," the intelligence ministry said in a statement published on its website.

The group, based in the western Kurdistan province, used "bogus companies, forged documents and bribery" to receive subsidised dollars from state banks, it said.

The Islamic republic has multiple exchange rates, with the government offering a subsidised rate of 42,000 rials per dollar to importers of vital goods. Most Iranians must buy dollars on the open market, where the rate stood at 110,000 rials on Monday, according to currency tracking site Bonbast. At one point in September, the rial had fallen to 190,000 per dollar, but the central bank has been pumping cash into the market in recent weeks to stabilise the currency.

Dozens of other "economic disruptors" have been arrested in recent months, and in November, a trader dubbed the "Sultan of Coins" and his accomplice were executed for exploiting the surge in demand for dollars and gold.

Many panicked Iranians rushed to secure their savings by buying foreign currency and precious metals in response to US President Donald Trump's decision in May to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and to reimpose sanctions.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2019

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