Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin tweeted a rallying cry to his followers last week when the cryptocurrency market hit another all-time high. Thanks in part to the emergence of bitcoin futures this year, plus tokenized fundraising for high-profile startup projects and a slew of other strides toward enterprise adoption, CoinMarketCap estimates the cryptocurrency industry’s global market cap is worth more than $600 billion. This prompted Buterin to ask : “How much censorship-resistant commerce for the common people have we enabled?”

This would be extremely hard to estimate. Many entrepreneurs who rely on cryptocurrencies for daily commerce, such as bitcoin-savvy sex workers, don’t factor into industry tallies or broadcast their growing numbers.  Yet there are communities of cryptocurrency users who can now participate in the global economy despite censorship and political restrictions. Venezuelans are perhaps the most famous example, mining and storing cryptocurrency to overcome the challenges of dangerously high Bolivar inflation.

While the Venezuelan government now demands bitcoin miners join a regulated registry, Iranian bitcoin miners are still generally flying under the radar. Iranians use cryptocurrency for censorship-resistant commerce all the time. 

Arash Mossadeghi, CEO of the Tehran-based company MiningBox, told International Business Times his company’s Telegram group for Iranian cryptocurrency miners has 2,600 active users. “Some are mining with two or three devices at home. Others own farms equipped with about 150 to 2000 graphic cards, which makes impossible to estimate the total calculation power of all these dispersed farms,” Mossadeghi said. “Currently, bitcoin, Ethereum and monero are the most popular cryptocurrencies for mining.” The Tehran Ethereum meetup group has 437 members while Tehran’s “Saturdays Decentral” bitcoin meetup has 1,311 members.

Years of international sanctions weakened the Iranian economy as political conflicts devalued local currency, the rial. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is pushing legislative reform to curtail money laundering and help Iran regain international trust. Strained relations with American President Donald Trump still make many investors wary of Iran’s nascent tech industry. Yet CoinDesk reported the Swedish firm Brave New World Investments recently incorporated without a bank to use bitcoin for Iranian investment opportunities, including stocks.

People have been using bitcoin to circumnavigate sanctions against Iranian businesses for years. “The sanctions imposed against Iran, which in many cases... restrict Iranian common people (and not the government) from accessing global markets,” Mossadeghi said. “Many people embrace blockchain as an alternative, convenient way to bypass the restrictions.” Iranian marketplaces such as btckala.com accept bitcoin while sites like digiarz.com make it easier for local companies to track how cryptocurrency prices compare to Iranian currency. Iranians can shop with cryptocurrency on foreign sites like Overstock as well.

According to CryptoCompare, Iran's rial is ranked the 32nd most popular fiat currency on cryptocurrency exchanges, making up less than one percent of fiat transactions. There’s a glaring problem with this statistic: Iranian rials aren’t accepted by most popular bitcoin platforms. Even if an Iranian finds a way to use other currencies to open an account on a popular global platform like Bittrex, he or she still runs the risk of being identified and shut down. Bitcoin forums are full of horror stories where thousands of Iranian users suddenly lost access to their exchange accounts.

This has given rise to Iran's peer-to-peer cryptocurrency market, which is hard to monitor in terms of volume. Iranians often find a local “seller” who will swap bitcoin for cash. “Due to sanctions, most exchanges wouldn’t work with someone from Iran,” Iranian programmer and cryptocurrency user David* told IBT. “You can buy from third parties... This is actually one of the easiest ways to pay online or move money from Iran.”

David said many of these local bitcoin sellers offer package deals, such as help with embassy appointments or English proficiency exams. Some Iranians see cryptocurrency as a direct channel to the outside world. There is a vibrant online tech community for the Iranian diaspora, including Persian cultural hubs in California and the United Kingdom, so Iranian bitcoin users often engage with global networks regardless of their English skills.

Despite the difficulties with exchanges and fickle prices, David said bitcoin transactions are now the easiest way for Iranians to do international business transactions and purchases. White collar wealth managers are slowly moving into the space, such as the Iran Trading Group offering bitcoin dealings and “Cayman Island offshore services.”

This unique cryptocurrency community needed different types of analysis, compared to mainstream English-speaking markets. Although Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked in Iran, one Facebook group for a Farsi bitcoin blog has around 29,549 members. The Farsi blockchain-centric news outlet Coiniran has more than 7,698 Twitter followers.

Coiniran was founded in 2014 and now has a staff of around 20 Iranian cryptocurrency experts, half of which work in Iran. The blog’s spokesman told IBT Google Analytics reveals more Iranian women are following the cryptocurrency market than foreign experts might expect. Coin.Dance estimates women make up around 3.4 percent of engaged users in English-speaking bitcoin communities. According to Coiniran’s spokesperson, Iranian women represent 10.5 percent of readers.  Iranian women are well-represented in Tehran's growing e-commerce scene

“The promising use cases of cryptocurrencies for the Iranian people... makes us optimistic,” Coiniran said. “Over the next few years, the Persian bitcoin community will become one of the most active crypto communities in the world.”

None of this should give the impression that Iran’s bitcoin community operates in a black market. It’s not illegal to hold or transact with bitcoin in Iran. To the contrary, Iranian bitcoin companies like Rodpay often list clear e-commerce compliance disclaimers on their platforms. Secretary Abolhassan Firouzabadi of Iran's High Council of Cyberspace reportedly said lawmakers “welcome bitcoin” as long as users follow the law.

There are official Iranian services for buying cryptocurrency online, such as Sarircard. Many of the use cases they facilitate are relatively small compared to blockchain industry deals in Silicon Valley. Iranians are still unable to use foreign credit cards and services like PayPal. So cryptocurrency's high transaction fees are less of a deterrent for users with few options.  “A student studying abroad may face many obstacles to receive money from his/her family,” Coiniran’s spokesperson said. “The sanctions and subsequent financial limitations push Iranian people to seek an alternative way for money transferring.”

Iranian bank notes Iranian money featuring the visage of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran Photo: Ali Al-Saadi/ Getty

The Tehran Times reported the Central Bank of Iran is now working on a fintech policy that will include digital currencies. In November, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Technology reportedly said: “The ministry of communications and information technology has already conducted a number of research studies as part of efforts to prepare the infrastructure to use bitcoin inside the country.”

Local censorship laws do present unique challenges, but some experts believe foreign policies actually do more to isolate Iranian cryptocurrency users. For example, David is working on a blockchain-based poker gaming project, regardless of the fact that gambling is illegal under Islamic law. “We use blockchain for tokenization,” he explained. “And resolving disputes. The other parts are played off-chain, but any dispute can be resolved on chain.”

David is considering launching one of the first Iranian initial coin offerings because he is excited about the potential ICOs present for involving investors who aren't wealthy elites, foreigners and diverse Iranians alike. Yet he is more concerned about an American lawsuit than Iranian religious police. “It’s my understanding that US lawmakers are extremely sensitive when it comes to this area,” he said. “But [the] Iranian government is too busy dealing with more important things nowadays...there are a lot of underground poker games and no one is afraid of a crackdown...the government cannot simply enforce the strict rules it once wanted.”

Coiniran’s spokesperson agreed Iranian audiences are engaging with ICOs, although there aren’t any local ICOs so far. Cryptocurrency helps Iranians invest abroad, just as they can now receive international investments. “We see users and investors willing to participate in promising ICOs. In fact, endorsing and promoting reliable ICOs is one of the major needs our audience expects us to comply [with],” he said.

All things considered, it may take several years until official metrics reflect real cryptocurrency adoption and usage in places like Iran. “Cryptocurrency exchanges and other relevant services are growing rapidly in Iran,” Mossadeghi said. “I foresee in the near future, they [Iranians] will bring a major contribution in this evolving technology.” 

* Editor's note: Some identifying details, such as last names, have been omitted to protect the identities of Iranian sources.