Growing Iran Oil Exports Challenge U.S. Nuclear SanctionsIndira A.R. Lakshmanan and Anthony DiPaola
Iran’s oil exports have risen this year, according to Bloomberg calculations, a trend that threatens to violate U.S. sanctions on the Islamic Republic’s main source of revenue.
Shipments of Iranian crude oil and condensate have increased about 28 percent on average this year, according to an analysis of customs data from importing nations and figures from the International Energy Agency in Paris. If crude sales are up by the end of July, that would break an international accord to hold Iran’s oil exports at the same level in the first half of this year that they were at in the previous six months.
Questioned in Congress yesterday about possible sanctions violations, an Obama administration official who monitors Iran’s oil exports said he’s confident Iranian crude shipments have remained within the limits set in a six-month agreement signed Jan. 20 that granted Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for some nuclear concessions.
“Where we are today, we feel comfortable that the crude oil exports of Iran are remaining in the 1 million to 1.1 million barrels per day average,” Amos Hochstein, deputy assistant secretary of state for energy diplomacy, testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The U.S. Congress passed legislation in December 2011 to curtail Iran’s oil exports in an effort to deprive the Persian Gulf state of its leading foreign revenue earner, to pressure its leaders to accept constraints on a suspected nuclear weapons program. A month later, the European Union approved an embargo on Iranian oil purchases by its members.
Only six buyers are still allowed to take crude from Iran - - China, India, Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Taiwan -- down from 21 before the restrictions went into effect in mid-2012.
Among the reasons that exports in the first few months of this year look higher are seasonal variations in oil purchases and the fact that reporting lags shipments and customs data are sometimes revised, according to two U.S. officials who weren’t authorized to be quoted.
Another reason is that while India’s crude imports from Iran were up significantly in the first few months of this year, its refiners have signed contracts for lower purchases in the coming months, which should bring down Iran’s average exports by July, the officials said.
The Obama administration says Iran’s oil exports have been reduced by more than half from 2.5 million barrels a day before sanctions. The U.S. also says Iran is losing as much as $5 billion a month in oil revenue.
Customs and other publicly available data, though, show that Iran’s exports of crude and condensates rose to an average of 1.33 million barrels a day in the first four months of this year from 1.04 million barrels a day on average in 2013, according to Bloomberg calculations.
Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, asked by a reporter at an OPEC meeting in Vienna yesterday, gave a higher figure, saying the Persian Gulf producer is exporting 1.2 million barrels of crude oil and 300,000 barrels of condensate a day.
U.S. officials say Iran consistently inflates trade figures to create an illusion that sanctions are crumbling.
Using customs and ship-tracking data to assess Iran’s oil export quantities is complicated by the fact that crude and condensates can be transported by the same type of tanker or blended together and that some countries combine the two in their import data.
Condensate, a light petroleum liquid often found with oil or gas, is not restricted by U.S. sanctions as long as the buyer nation was granted a waiver from the sanctions by reducing the amount of crude oil it buys from Iran.
China has considerably increased its purchases of Iranian condensate this year, and that has inflated overall import figures, according to the two Obama administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. U.S. officials say Iran may be offering China and other customers significant discounts on condensate and crude in an attempt to keep sales flowing despite punishing sanctions.
Although Iran exports condensate in much smaller quantities than crude oil, the product fetches higher prices because it’s easier and less expensive to refine into gasoline or diesel fuel.
Richard Mallinson, an analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd., a London-based consultancy, said Iran is set to sell an average of more than 1.3 million barrels of crude oil and condensates a day in the first half of the year, up from last year’s combined average of 1.06 million barrels, he said.
“However you choose to define it, exports are running higher than they did last year,” Mallinson said in a phone interview. “What’s become clear is that for the U.S., achieving a comprehensive deal” to curb Iran’s nuclear program “is too valuable to risk over the fact that Iran’s oil exports will be more than the desired levels.”
Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, who’s advised Congress on ways to tighten sanctions against Iran, said lenient enforcement of oil sanctions during the negotiations sends a bad message.
“If this is an example of how strictly they will enforce any final nuclear agreement with Iran, then Iran should feel more confident that they will be able to exploit any loopholes with impunity,” he said.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today, several members expressed concern that Iran may be circumventing sanctions, just as it may intend to bypass any negotiated restrains on its nuclear program if a final deal is reached. Committee chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, credited international sanctions as the “single most influential” reason that Iran is still at the nuclear negotiating table.
Questioned at yesterday’s House hearing by Representative Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat, the State Department’s Hochstein explained that while most publicly available figures count crude and condensate together, the U.S. government has more accurate measures for determining if countries buying crude from Iran are complying with U.S. sanctions.
“We have a lot of concerns, we are actively engaging, but we believe that countries have kept tight,” Hochstein said.
Hochstein also said that due to sanctions, payments for Iran’s oil aren’t made in hard currency; they’re still going into local-currency escrow accounts that Iran’s government may use only to buy goods in the importing nation.
“They are not getting the money and the access to the cash,” Hochstein said. “That money is still going to accounts that are blocked in those countries and have to remain, under certain conditions, in those countries.”
China, which remains the biggest buyer of Iranian crude and showed the largest increase in purchases this year, is a U.S. partner in negotiations aimed at constraining Iran’s nuclear activities. Sanctioning oil buyers such as China by blocking their banks from the U.S. financial system could derail international unity in negotiations on a nuclear accord.
“Having a little more Iranian oil than was expected at the beginning of the year has been helpful,” Mallinson said. “We haven’t seen the usual mid-year price slide, which shows we came into the year quite tight. Iran pumping more crude did help, but not enough to bring down oil prices.”
West Texas Intermediate rose to an eight-month high of $106.53 a barrel today and Brent crude surged to $113.02 a barrel as violence escalated across northern and central Iraq, increasing the prospect of a return to civil war in OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer. Iran, previously OPEC’s No. 2 producer, slipped to fourth place after sanctions took effect.
Deutch and Florida Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also challenged Hochstein over reports that Iran this year has begun exporting oil to longtime ally Syria.
“Over the last few months, Iran has begun to direct shipments of crude oil to Syria for the first time” because Syria’s regime can no longer buy crude on the open market, Hochstein said. “But that is a very different kind of delivery,” he added, because Iran is giving the oil to its embattled ally for free. “This doesn’t contribute to the overall economic benefit to Iran.”
China remained the biggest buyer of Iranian oil, importing an average of 620,710 barrels a day of crude and condensate in the first four months of the year, according to customs data from the world’s largest energy importer. The country, which imported an average of 430,585 barrels of crude and condensate a day last year, also accounted for the biggest increase in imports of Iranian fuel.
The next round of talks between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- plus Germany is scheduled to start June 16 in Vienna.
This week, senior U.S. officials held bilateral discussions with Iranian officials in Geneva in an effort to press Iran to be more realistic in its demands for a civilian nuclear program and assess whether it’s feasible to reach a final deal before the interim agreement expires July 20. Both sides have said an extension of the current deal is possible.
Iran says its nuclear program is only for civilian energy and medical research. The U.S. and other world powers accuse Iran of seeking a nuclear weapons capability.
Bloomberg’s calculations for Iranian exports use data from the International Energy Agency for India because that country’s customs figures were not available for this year. Turkey’s averages purchases are based on data for the first three months of the year provided by Turkey’s government. Taiwan said it hasn’t imported any Iranian crude yet this year.
The following is a table of purchases of Iranian crude and condensate calculated from customs and import data provided by national authorities in each of the buyers listed:
Average purchases of Iranian crude in bbl/day
Buyer Jan.-April 2014 2013 China 620,710 430,585 India 316,250* 178,182** Japan 151,252 180,106 South Korea 134,383 132,093 Turkey 107,726*** 105,545 Taiwan 0 15,373 Total 1,330,321 1,041,884
* data from IEA ** April-Dec. 2013 *** Jan-March 2014