Dissonant Harmony

When it comes to political intrigue and natural resources, the main suspects are easy to spot. Oil. Coal. Gold. Rubber. Travertine.

Travertine?

Admittedly, nobody’s going to war over deposits of the golden stone, or clashing over marble and granite. Natural stone, though, appears in some of the hot spots around the globe – and, thanks to an international show of unity, may get a free pass around any economic actions.

The latest example of this is Iran, where unrest after June elections continues to draw the world’s attention (save for a few days of the fatal attraction of Michael Jackson). For weeks, there’ve been countless emails, Twitter tweets and other fractured reports about turmoil in the streets.

Strong protests from countries around the globe will inevitably lead to calls for action. The easy route is economic sanctions, likely in the form of the boycott or interdiction of Iranian products in the world market. It’s been the standard policy of the United States through six presidential administrations since Iran’s 1979 revolution (although the two countries did record $600 million in trade last year, with U.S. exports trumping Iranian imports by a 4:1 ratio).

The biggie here, of course, is oil. The country also offers numerous other natural resources; stone probably doesn’t make many lists for possible economic action.

Readers of the annual stone-market analysis from Carlo Montani and Faenza Editrice in Milan, Italy, know better. Montani’s World Marketing Handbook shows that, when it comes to calcareous stones – marble and travertine, for the most part – Iran’s a major player in natural stone.

Montani’s research shows that Iran is actually the fourth-largest quarrier of dimensional stone in the world, after China, India and Italy. And, in 2007 – the last year that data is available – Iran exported 567,796 metric tons of raw calcareous stone (mainly travertine and marble), or 6.9 percent of the world’s trade.

It’s that raw-stone figure that can be the bugaboo. It’s one thing to make a fuss about finished products, although the major traders with Iran and its processed stone – Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia – are unlikely sanction partners. It’s the unfinished blocks of stone that can literally sail past any economic walls.

That’s where the concept of harmonized tariffs comes into play. Based on international codes and agreements, customs assessments are made based on the condition of materials at the time of importation.

If a material or resource is processed in a particular country, harmonized tariffs recognize the processing country as the designated exporting country. And it doesn’t take much to see that raw stone from a country like Iran flows into the world trade flow as a processed product from somewhere else.

In case you’re wondering where that Iranian raw calcareous stone went in 1997, the bulk – 79 percent – sailed to China, with another 7.4 percent going to Italy. Trying to identify Iranian stone in the massive processing factories of both countries would be needle-in-the-haystack time.

Iran’s not the only case of stone exports getting a new identity. It’s not illegal by any literal stretch of international law, and nobody’s going to swoop in and seize slabs and tiles out of the local stoneyard. Stone and politics aren’t a point of controversy.

Not yet, anyway.

Emerson Schwartzkopf

You can read up-to-the-minute news on the dimensional-stone trade and search the archives at Stone Business Online, where you can also find this blog at the Main Menu under the clever title of “Editor’s Blog.”

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