Iran’s return to oil markets

Thursday, the Wilson Center focused on “Middle East Energy: Beyond an Iran Nuclear Deal,” which explored the oil and gas sectors’ future given Iran’s possible sanctions relief. Speakers included David Goldwyn, President of Goldwyn Global Strategies LLC, David Gordon, Senior Advisor of the Eurasia Group, Julia Nanay, Principal at Energy Ventures LLC and Jean-Francois Seznec, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council. The event was moderated by Jan H. Kalicki, Wilson Center Public Policy Fellow and Energy Lead.

Gordon talked about potential energy market responses with the entry of Libya and Iran into the market. Libya’s entry last year put downward pressure on oil prices. The country is currently in the process of building up its export volumes, but the political and security fragility remains. Iran’s market impact is also uncertain. There may be competition between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states for market share. Iran’s success is far from assured. The current uncertainty ends up being bearish for energy markets, which will lead to the strengthening of the US dollar. Only the risk of supply disruption and failure of nuclear talks could be bullish for markets.

If sanctions are lifted, Nanay thinks Iran’s key goal is to become the second largest producer in OPEC. Saudi Arabia’s oil production amounts to 10.3 million barrels a day, while Iran is at 2.8 million barrels a day. Iraq’s is a bit higher. Iran might bring back 700-800,000 barrels a day, with 20 million barrels released quickly and efficiently. Sanctions have also prevented oil revenues from flowing back to Iran. There may be as much as $100 billion that could be released quickly, possibly half from China. International oil companies (IOCs) also owe large sums to Iran.

Possible losers from sanctions relief are the Saudis, Russians, Nigerians and Kuwaitis. The Saudis and Russians have been able to capture some exports to China. Sanctions relief would decrease the market share of all oil exporting countries that have benefited from having Iran off the oil market.

Iran has several stalled projects with significant market potential in the oil and gas sectors. A South Pars project requires 24 phases to develop fully, of which 11 phases have already been done without sanctions removal. Iran is looking to complete more phases by next year. Iran has also planned three big Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) projects. Iran can ship this LNG to Europe and supply its neighbors, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but politics may complicate partnerships. The only neighbor Iran has a good relationship with is Oman. An Iran-Oman gas pipeline is possible, but the countries may disagree on price.

Seznec disagreed with Nanay on Iran’s potential in the oil market. Iran will require technology and investment that would make it dependent on IOCs. Instead, Iran can emphasize natural gas, which both Iran and the Gulf states need. The GCC states—especially Saudi Arabia—could partner with Iran in the gas sector. The Saudis have the technology and money to help the Iranians redevelop their gas fields. The Kingdom is seeking to avoid overdependence on crude oil. Instead, it wants to add value by building capacity for refined products and chemicals. Their vision is eventually to get out selling crude and leave Iran and Iraq as the “third world countries” that produce raw materials.

Goldwyn commented on Iraq’s position in the oil market. He believes Iraq might increase production by completing the revamp of the Al Faw Peninsula, but that is an $8-10 billion dollar project.

On the Baghdad-Kurdistan Regional Government deal, Goldwyn pointed out two reasons for the unraveling:

  1. Baghdad hasn’t paid Kurdish forces what it owes.
  2. The Kurds are not exporting the agreed-upon average of 550,000 barrels per day.

If Iraq is unable to increase production much and Iran produces an additional 500-800,000 barrels a day, there is no need for OPEC quota renegotiation, Goldwyn said. There is room for rapprochement on economics between Iran and the Gulf states. But first there must be rapprochement on security. If Iran reduces its involvement in Yemen and Iraq, there is potential for détente with the Saudis, who would also have to do their part in reducing the flow of funds to Al Qaeda and ISIS. If both parties deliver, an economic deal is on the horizon. Otherwise, the current situation will continue, with the Saudis better financed and more competitive than any other player in the Gulf.

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