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DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran has temporarily banned the import of some "luxury goods" including foreign-made cars and mobile phones, a state-run newspaper said on Thursday, to save billions of dollars for essential products in the face of worsening sanctions.
Iran's oil exports, the lifeblood of its economy and the major source of revenue for the government, have dropped sharply over the past year because of Western sanctions imposed over Tehran's disputed nuclear program.
This has caused a slide in Iran's rial currency, which has lost about two-thirds of its value against the dollar in the open market over the past 15 months as Iranians have scrambled to convert their savings into dollars and euros.
The government has responded by restricting Iranians' access to hard currency, rationing the dollars which it supplies to companies and individuals through the central bank, and setting up an official foreign exchange centre.
Authorities have divided imports into 10 categories based on how essential they are seen to be, and will provide importers with dollars at a subsidized rate to buy basic goods.
The report by the state-run newspaper Iran Daily said import permission for some luxury goods, from foreign-made cars, mobile phones and laptops to home appliances and clothing, were no longer being issued "until there is a final review".
"Those products not produced domestically will be removed from the list (of banned items) but most of the named products are produced in the country and there is no need to import them," the report quoted Commerce Ministry official Sasan Khodaei as saying.
The Iranian government provides dollars at a rate of 12,260 rials each for specified priority goods. On the open market, a dollar costs around 30,000 rials.
The newspaper said Iran had annually spent around $12 billion to import luxury and non-essential goods.
Iran's merchandise imports are running at slightly over $50 billion a year, according to the government, so slashing them could reduce pressure to run down its foreign exchange reserves.
The reserves stood at $106 billion at the end of last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But some analysts estimate they may have dropped by several tens of billions of dollars as the sanctions have cut oil income. The government keeps the level of its reserves secret.
In October, Iran banned the export of around 50 basic goods including wheat, flour, sugar, and red meat, as well as aluminium and steel ingots.
Reporting by Zahra Hosseinian; Editing by Mark Heinrich