After an expected hiatus in Iran’s oil exports to some of the country’s main customers following the reimposition of the US sanctions, once again the country’s old buyers are coming back to take advantage of the 180-day window which has been presented by the waivers granted in November.
Although it took some of these buyers more than a month to make necessary arrangements or to contemplate on the matter, it seems that finally the convenience of buying oil from Iran has outweighed the skepticism overshadowing Iranian oil industry.
With the customers coming back everything was seemed to be, once again, in favor of Iran’s oil industry, however the US government’s disappointing comments last weekend could change all the equations for Iran’s oil market in the months to come.
“The United States is not looking to grant more waivers for Iranian oil imports after the reimposition of US sanctions.” Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, told an industry conference in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi.
Considering this new stand, the immediate question which comes to mind is what would become Iran’s oil market after the 180-day period is over? To answer this question two main aspects should be taken into account, one is the consideration of Iran’s ability to bypass the sanctions and the second is the possibility of Iranian oil customers being pushed away in the wake of difficulties resulted from the sanctions.
Even though at first the markets were almost certain about the severe impact of Trump’s plans on Iranian oil industry, but the surprising decision on granting eight countries waivers to continue buying Iranian oil significantly mitigated the harsh outlook.
Now, nearly three months after the reimpostion of the US sanctions on Iran, the market has witnessed that the Iranian oil exports are not plunged as much as expected.
Although due to the confidentiality of Iran’s crude oil sales data, especially in the sanctions era, there is not an exact report for the level of the country’s oil exports in recent months, however based on the estimations presented by institutes which track Iranian oil vessels, the country’s oil exports stood at near 1.1 to 1.3 million barrels per day in November and December.
Furthermore, considering the exempted countries which are going to resume their oil purchasers from January, and the new approaches which Iran is taking to sell its oil like offering oil at energy exchanges or finding new customers, the country can definitely maintain an even higher level of exports in the months to come.
According to a FGE report, Iran will ship 1.08 million barrels per day in January and exports 1.115 million barrels per day in February.
We should not also forget Iran’s experience in bypassing sanctions to sale its oil. As I mentioned before, Iran has acquired certain ways to bypass sanctions and sell its oil even during the sanctions.
Iranian oil buyers
Nearly two months after the US granted eight countries waivers to continue purchasing oil from Iran, recently some of the Asian buyers have signaled willingness for resuming oil imports from the country.
China, India and South Korea have placed orders for loadings in January or February and Japanese refineries have also expressed hope to resume shipping in Iranian oil as from late January provided that some final clearance and paperwork were made.
As reported by S&P Global, the presidents of Japan’s JXTG Holdings and Cosmo Oil stated that they aim to load Iranian barrels at the end of January upon making some final clearances.
“Cosmo Oil aims to load around 1.8 million barrels of Iranian crude at the end of this month” the report read.
Last week, head of South Korea’s SK Innovation, which owns South Korea’s biggest oil refiner SK Energy also told Reuters that South Korean oil buyers are expected to restart Iranian oil imports in late January or early February.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs has also stated recently that the Asian country will continue importing Iranian oil. According to data provided by FACTS Global Energy Group (FGE), four Indian refineries namely, Indian Oil, Bharat Petroleum, HMEL and HPCL have placed orders for 321,000 barrels of Iranian oil in February.
Regarding Greece, Italy, and Taiwan which were exempted from the US sanctions, no news has been officially out since November.
Even though Europe opposed Trump’s actions, and have reassured Iran’s government that they want the nuclear deal to continue, refiners in the green continent have had little choice but to comply with sanctions. The US can cut off access to their financial system for any company judged to be doing business with Iran.
The customer preferences
With all that said, there are still other considerations which should be taken into account to have a rather clear view of what to expect for the future of Iranian oil.
The fact that it took near two months for some of the Asian buyers of Iranian oil to make necessary arrangements to come back to Iran’s market, is an indication of the hardships that the customers of Iranian oil will be facing in trade with Iran.
The heavy bureaucratic process which the exempted countries have to go through in order to buy Iranian oil, could push some of the more cautious customers like Japan and even South Korea away from Iran.
Most Asian customers of Iranian oil are very sensitive and conservative in their relations with the United States, and this is likely to be a barrier in the way of their energy relations with Iran.
Japan is a clear example of this situation; despite being granted sanction waiver the Japanese refineries have conditioned the resumption of their purchases upon “making some final clearances”.
Regarding Iranian oil buyers’ future decisions, yet another fact that should be taken into account is the reality that with Saudi Arabia, Russia and US producing almost at their peak, and with prices hovering near $60 there is currently a lot of cheap oil in the market.
In such a market, it is natural that some of the Iranian oil customers prefer to purchase their oil from other oil suppliers instead of exposing themselves to the consequences of breaching the US sanctions.
So in the end, it all comes to the incentives which Iranian government is willing to provide to make its oil attractive enough to worth the risk.
It seems that the country has taken some steps in this regard, since earlier this month, the Iranian Deputy Oil Minister for International Affairs and Trading Amir-Hossein Zamaninia said despite the US. sanctions more oil buyers have approached the country for negotiations.
“Despite US pressures on Iranian oil market, the number of potential buyers of Iranian oil has significantly increased due to a competitive market, greed and pursuit of more profit.” Zamaninia said.
Mentioning “pursuit of more profit” indicates that Iran is probably going to provide its customers with remarkable discounts or provide them with long-term payment plans which considering the current situation in the market seems to be the best decision at the moment.
First published in our partner MNA