By Gregory Brew
Despite new sanctions by the Trump Administration and an escalating war of words regarding its ballistic missile program, Iran is continuing to push ahead with plans to maintain oil production at around 3.8 million bpd, the level agreed upon at the November OPEC meeting last year. In order to do so, Iran will need to attract billions in new investment, as its current production is based on aging fields and crumbling infrastructure.
To maintain the current production level while continuing to export and meet domestic demand, Iran will need at least $100 billion in new investment. New U.S. sanctions, which target 25 Iranian individuals and entities said to be associated with the country’s missile program, is being touted as an “initial step” in the administration’s plan to push back hard on Iran’s regional ambitions, with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn announcing last week that the U.S. was “putting Iran on notice.” The Iranian response to the U.S. rhetoric has been mostly dismissive, with one Iranian official characterizing the Trump Administration as “inexperienced.”
The question is how these new sanctions or future U.S. actions against Iran may inhibit the country’s recovering oil and gas industry. The announcement of the new sanctions caused a slight tremor in prices, which was offset by inventory reports and reviving U.S. output. If tensions between the U.S. and Iran were to escalate, it would place upward pressure on prices.
Iran is set to announce a round of tenders in mid-February. Originally set for January, the tenders were delayed several weeks, in part due to disagreements within the Iranian government (which oversees the National Iranian Oil Company, or NIOC) over how best to attract foreign investment. Debates over new oil contracts raged all last summer, as the question of inviting more foreign companies into Iran is beset with political significance in a country still considerably isolated from international capital, as well as one that has a long history of distrusting foreign oil companies.
According to Reuters, the first round of tenders has been repeatedly delayed, while major companies have made only hesitant inroads into Iran. Shell signed a provisional deal in December to develop three large oil and gas fields, but has yet to act on it. French company Total agreed in principle to a $2 billion deal to develop the South Pars natural gas field, with a 50.1 percent stake in the project
The new round of U.S. sanctions, though they are limited in nature, are acting to deter U.S. companies from seeking new contracts. Deputy oil minister Amirhossein Zamaninia has welcomed interest from U.S. companies, but has warned that as long as the primary sanctions remain, “U.S. firms cannot play any role in Iran’s oil and gas industry.”
Zamainnia has expressed hope that President Trump, as a “non-conventional politician,” will seek to revise U.S.-Iranian relations and seek business deals, which could potentially serve the U.S. economy. Yet Trump’s hard stance on Iran thus far, and the imposition of new sanctions, would make that appear unlikely. The Iranian press claims the new sanctions are isolating the U.S., rather than Iran, which is still free to pursue deals with European companies. “Iran has placed no limitations on American companies, but based on their own laws they are not allowed to attend oil tenders in Iran,” Zamaninia told the press.
Without U.S. companies participating, Iran could probably attract the investment it needs in the short-term. The tenders to be offered in February will include twenty-nine companies, most of them Chinese or East Asian, though Total and Shell have both been permitted to participate. BP was encouraged in January to bid once contracts became available, though the company has not said one way or the other whether it will participate.
Iran remains primarily interested in attracting European capital. This makes sense, both from an economic and political perspective (and with the U.S. sanctions and new administration, politics will matter just as much as economics). Iran wants to start exporting in large quantities to Europe again, and last month it dispatched the first major tanker shipments to a European port in five years. Should U.S. antagonism towards Iran increase, to the point that President Trump considers imposing new sanctions or even backing out of the July 2015 nuclear deal, it would place no restraint on European countries like Germany, Great Britain and France, who were all parties to the deal.
Germany company BASF, along with two other German petrochemical firms, has expressed an interest in investing as much as $12 billion in Iran, according to Iranian press sources. Total, for its part, has said that it is still ready to go through with its plan, now worth $4.8 billion, to develop South Pars.
It should be noted that a lot of the enthusiasm being generated about possible investments in Iran are coming from Iran-affiliated news sources. It may take some time to see if the confidence being projected around Iran’s ability to attract ample investment accurately reflects industry confidence in the country’s ability to work with foreign companies.
Nevertheless, should the February tenders be a success, and should Iran overcome its own political divisions regarding attracting foreign investment, there’s a strong chance the country will continue to develop its untapped oil and gas fields and continue the on-going recovery of its domestic energy industry, regardless of punitive actions taken by the United States.
By Gregory Brew for Oilprice.com