It was no coincidence that just over a month after staunch U.S. ally-Israel and the United Arab Emirates declared that they would normalise relations and Israel and Bahrain did the same, Iran’s own neo-client state, Iraq, began to announce various relationship-enhancing deals centred on electricity and fuel oil. The geopolitical intentions of Iran and its key sponsor, China behind these Iraq deals are obvious when factoring in that Iraq itself is so desperately short of electricity and other power options that it still suffers from extreme power shortages that have repeatedly resulted in violent and deadly protests across the country. The chronic shortage of electricity and any fuel for power in Iraq is so bad that it is one of the worst offenders in the world for burning valuable crude oil to generate power and is why it is granted specific waivers from the U.S. to continue to import electricity and gas from the otherwise-sanctioned Iran. In line with Iran’s (and China’s) geopolitical strategy for the Middle East, Iraq last week announced Lebanon is set to receive 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil from it this year for power generation. Iraq also announced that last week saw the renewal of a similarly-themed deal with Jordan as well.
The theme is the build-out of the Shia crescent of power, with Iran at its geographic centre and China at its political one, backed up by Russian on-the-ground force when and where required, a process that has been expedited following the dramatic downscaling of U.S. military presence across the Middle East and West Asia during the presidential tenure of Donald Trump. With Iran already either directly (through its foreign intelligence and military organisations) or indirectly (through its proxy paramilitary groups) highly active in the Shia crescent areas of Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Lebanon – softer pressure is being added by financing deals on offer from China (or Russia) for states teetering on the margins of this alliance that are struggling economically from the after-effects of two oil price wars in less than five years and the demand destruction effect of the COVID-19 pandemic or from general economic mismanagement. These include, from the Russian side, Azerbaijan (75 per cent Shia and a Former Soviet Union State) and Turkey (25 per cent Shia and furious at not being accepted fully into the European Union), although others remained longer-term targets, including Bahrain (75 per cent Shia), and Pakistan (up to 25 Shia and a home to sworn-U.S. enemies Al Qaeda and the Taliban). From the Chinese side, these include any country on or adjoining its land or maritime routes in its ‘One Belt, One Road’ (OBOR) program, notably in the Middle East, Oman and Jordan. The build-out of a power network across the Middle East, focused on deals with Iraq – still regarded as being a possible ally by the U.S. and thus tolerated by it – perfectly aligns with this plan for this planned expansion of power.
On the face of it the Jordan deal might appear innocuous enough, with the formal announcement of the extension of a previous contract that had lapsed at the end of December for Jordan to import crude oil from Iraq. Jordan’s Energy Minister, Hala Zawati, stated in July of last year that the Kingdom would resume imports of at least 10,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Iraq crude oil via tankers at a discount of US$16 to the Brent price, reflecting transport costs and quality differential. These supplies came from Baiji in Iraq direct to the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company (JPRC), constituting around seven per cent of Jordan’s daily demand. The original deal that had been struck in 2006 mandated a discount to Brent of US$18 pb, on the basis that Jordan bore the transport costs between Kirkuk in northern Iraq and Zarqa in the Kingdom and presaged a broader build-out of energy ties between the two countries.
However, underpinning this agreement were broader discussions about the future relationship between Jordan and Iraq and these also resulted in a contract being signed last year to connect the electric power grids of the two countries. By extension, this will provide a direct link between Jordan and Iraq’s key regional sponsor, Iran, which recently signed a two-year deal with Iraq to supply it with electricity, the longest such deal signed between the two countries. The last piece of this game-changing regional networking operation was that just before the announcement of the Iraq-Jordan network deal, Jordan also announced that it had signed a memorandum of understanding with Saudi Arabia to lay out the framework of joint co-operation to connect the electric power grids of these two countries. This brought with it the prospect for China and Russia of being able to shift Saudi further away from the U.S. sphere of influence and into the Sino-Russian one.
This shift in the previously apparently inextricable alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia first became especially noticeable after the first oil price war launched by Riyadh in 2014 to destroy (or at least severely disable for a long time) the U.S. shale oil industry that Washington regarded as an unacceptable attack on a sector that was (and is) planned to be a cornerstone of its economic, geopolitical, and energy security for decades to come. This rift in the basic deal dating back to 1945 that had underpinned the close U.S.-Saudi relationship widened as the Saudis were forced to rely on Russia to add any gravitas to the OPEC oil production deals from 2017. This new mutual understanding was clearly signalled when Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, invited Saudi Arabia’s King, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, to Russia in October 2017 – the first ever visit to Moscow made by a sitting Saudi monarch, and the largest ever foreign delegation to Moscow.
In this context, just a month or so before Iraq Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s visit to Washington last year, Iran’s Energy Minister, Reza Ardakanian, stated that Iran and Iraq’s power grids have become fully synchronised to provide electricity to both countries by dint of the new Amarah-Karkheh 400-KV transmission line stretching over 73 kilometres, which also ‘paves the way for increasing energy exports to Iraq in the near future, from the current 1,361 megawatts per day now.’ He added that Iranian and Iraqi dispatching centres were fully connected in Baghdad, the power grids were seamlessly interlinked, and that Iran had signed a three-year co-operation agreement with Iraq ‘to help the country’s power industry in different aspects’. At the same time, it was announced by the Iranian Electrical Power Equipment Manufacturing and Provision Company that Iran’s electricity exports to other neighbouring countries in the previous Iranian calendar year (ended on 19 March 2020) reached over 8 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh), a mean average increase of 27.6 per cent year-on-year. So far, the countries receiving power from Iran’s grid are: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Nakhchivan Autonomous Republic, plus, of course, Iraq (which saw an increase of 34.6 per cent from the preceding year). This network does not include the parallel network connections that Iran is consolidating in terms both of direct electricity and gas exchanges, which further includes Turkmenistan and Turkey.
The deal with Lebanon is exactly in the same vein, although Iran’s influence in the country – which, very usefully for Iran’s crude oil export sales, has a very long Mediterranean coastline – is currently much greater and more disruptive, wielded through its political and military proxy, Hezbollah. According to a statement last week from Lebanon’s caretaker Energy Minister, Raymond Ghajar, the country is set to receive 500,000 tonnes of fuel oil from Iraq in 2021 for power generation. The Energy Ministry will also be buying spot cargos of fuel, as and when required, as its state power company does not have the capacity to meet demand, resulting in increasingly widespread and lengthy power cuts across the country. Compounding the obvious point that these deliveries will just be used by Iran as part of its ongoing use of Iraq as a front to export and sell its own crude oil and fuel oil and other related products was the additional – bizarre, if not taken in the above context – comment from Ghajar that: “Iraq’s heavy fuel does not match Lebanon’s specific needs but an Iraqi company can arrange a swap for another kind of fuel that was more suited.”