These contrary trends of expanding trade and persistent uncertainty continued this week, as indicated by reports describing different aspects of Iranian oil exports to Asian markets. In the first place, Retuers reported on Thursday that Iran’s largest Asian oil buyer, South Korea was on track to average 200,000 barrels per day of imports of ultralight oil condensates. This would represent a roughly 50 percent increase over the previous month, and four times the amount of condensates that South Korea was taking from Iran in January, when the sanctions were first lifted. Across all types of Iranian oil, South Korean imports have doubled during this same period.
The Reuters report also emphasizes that this trend puts Iran directly at odds with some of its competitors in the Middle East, particularly Qatar, for which condensate exports have declined 19 percent since April. This loss is attributable to the fact that Iran is rapidly increasing output and selling at a low price in a bid to reclaim market share that was lost during years of punishing sanctions. Recently, Iranian condensate sold for as much as five dollars per barrel less than its Qatari counterpart. The difference has now reportedly shrunk to two or three dollars, but this will certainly not help Qatar to recovery what it has lost, barring intervention from other competitors or certain changes in the market.
Of course, such interventions and changes are a realistic possibility, especially considering that some of Iran’s leading rivals are well aware of the country’s plans for its oil economy, and are committed to pushing back against them. Last month, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries failed to arrive at an agreement to collectively freeze production and stabilize prices, because Saudi Arabia refused to pursue the plan unless Iran agreed to participate.
Previously, Iran had indicated that it would not consider itself subject to collective market controls until it had recovered its own oil output to pre-sanctions levels. By some accounts, this benchmark has been achieved, although certain analysts expect that the current four million barrel per day output will not be sustainable, as it relies on previous surplus that has been held in storage. But whatever the reason, Iran has shown no sign of slowing down its efforts to expand output and chip away at its competitors’ shares of the market.
This has contributed to a situation in which Iran and Saudi Arabia have sometimes been described as being engaged in “economic warfare.” In a clear reversal of the previous efforts to freeze output and facilitate growth in recently-depressed prices, the Saudis recently took the step of cutting prices at a time when market conditions would have allowed for them to be raised instead. Such actions suggest a clear intention to constrain Iran’s growth.
On a global scale, that objective may continue to be aided by investors’ wariness regarding the Iranian market. Earlier this week, it was reported that the owners of some European and Asian tankers had entered into a new insurance agreement that could help to carry Iranian oil to foreign markets. But the need for this agreement was a reflection of the overall lack of insurers for such endeavors, which is in turn a response primarily to banking restrictions and persistent terror and human rights related sanctions maintained on Iran by the US.
It is unclear what effect the private agreement among oil carriers will have on this situation. While it may allow some Iranian oil to reach new foreign markets, its success is not yet a foregone conclusion and in any event there is a great deal of ground for such carriers to make up. On Thursday, two days after Reuters reported upon the insurance agreements, the same news agency reported that the absence of insurers had effectively prevented any Iranian exports from reaching markets including Japan in the months since implementation of the JCPOA.
The report points out that “Japan’s official customs-cleared trade data showed it last imported Iranian [liquefied petroleum gas] in February 2012, before tough Western sanctions on tanker coverage for Iran came into effect.” Although the head of Iran’s Association of Petrochemical Industry Corporations claims that the issues regarding insurance and the absence of LPG carriers “have been almost resolved,” the industry has so far been unable to recover any of the 861,000 tonnes of LPG exports that had been delivered from Iran to Japan in 2010, even though Iranian oil authorities insist that their overall oil output returned to pre-sanctions levels within a period of about four months.
Naturally, the issues that have restrained Iran’s return to Asian markets have also impacted its return to Europe. And despite the newfound, but limited availability of supertankers to transport Iranian oil, these issues show no sign of being resolved in the near future. A report that appeared in Bloomberg on Thursday noted that while many European investors continue to explore their prospects for purchasing oil from Iran or otherwise participating in the would-be opening of that economy, they also remain dissatisfied with the guidance that they have received from the US regarding what business interactions are permitted and what enforcement measures might still be visited upon people who partner with Iranian institutions.
Because of these persistent uncertainties, Bloomberg reports that there are apparently no banks that will support investments even from companies like Airbus, which has already entered into an agreement to sell 118 commercial jets to Iran, at a price of 27 billion dollars. This news comes in spite of the fact that the Obama administration has been criticized by congressmen and other opponents of the White House’s Iran policy for allegedly telling foreign businesses that investment in Iran is not only permitted but encouraged. These criticisms are apparently at odds with Bloomberg’s claim that the US has been seen as “rebuffing” EU efforts to shield banks from sanctions. On the other hand, it may be specifically because of congressional scrutiny of the White House’s communications that foreign entities remain unclear about where the US will stand over the long run.
If that is the case, the situation is presumably exacerbated by continued signs of animosity between Iran and the US as a whole. In fact, some of those conflicts have financial aspects, as is the case with last month’s US Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court decision that allowed victims of Iran-backed terrorism to claim compensation from frozen Iranian assets. Tehran plans to sue the US over this decision in the International Court of Justice, and the National Interest explained on Thursday that such legal action is made possible by the fact that Iran and the US remain subject to a 1955 bilateral Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights, despite the fact that they have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
This bizarre situation no doubt contributes to confusion about the future of legal action and financial penalties between the two countries, thereby making European investors likely to remain uncertain about the long-term status of restrictions on Iran until such time as all relevant disputes are settled.