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Asia rests hopes on Iran's early return to douse oil price blaze


Asia worried about Russia's conditions on Iran deal

Brent jumps more than $21/b amid fears of ban on Russian oil imports

Energy costs as percentage of GDP highest since 2008: analyst

  • Author
  • Sambit Mohanty    Gawoon Philip Vahn    Analyst Oceana Zhou
  • Editor
  • Ankit Ajmera
  • Commodity
  • Electric Power Natural Gas Oil
  • Tags
  • United States
  • Topic
  • War in Ukraine Iran Sanctions

Asian crude importers see the early return of Iranian supply amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict as the only way to cool soaring oil prices that would prevent demand destruction and ensure the fragile regional economic recovery from the pandemic remains intact.

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The market, however, is unduly worried about one step forward and two steps backward in the progress toward opening Iranian crude flows.

Tehran has been sending a strong signal of its return by offering fewer cargoes to Chinese trading houses, as it looks to keep barrels to sell directly ahead of the potential lifting of sanctions. But the recent conditions set by Russia March 5 on the removal of sanctions on Iran could pour cold water on Asia's hopes, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seeking a written guarantee from the US that sanctions would not impede Russia's trade with Tehran.

"Asian buyers are hoping for a quick return of Iranian supply to bring oil prices lower amidst rising geopolitical tensions, with OPEC+ sticking with plans to raise April quotas by just 400,000 b/d recently," said Lim Jit Yang, advisor for oil markets at S&P Global Commodity Insights.

"We believe a deal between the US and Iran could be reached shortly," said Lim. "Our reference case assumes a full return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will trigger full sanctions relief by May. This would lift production by 750,000 b/d by August, plus 300,000 b/d of exports from storage."

Oil rallied sharply at the open late March 6 on news that Joe Biden administration is discussing a potential ban on Russian oil imports with its European allies. ICE front-month Brent rose $21.02 to $139.13/b, and NYMEX front-month crude climbed $14.82 to $130.50/b.

A State Department official told S&P Global that it hopes Russia will adopt a more productive stance toward the negotiations since Russia shares a common interest in ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon.

"By most estimates Iran will be able to quickly ramp up its production capability, and indeed has been planning for its return to the international crude markets for some time now," said Rajat Kapoor, managing director for oil, gas and chemicals at Synergy Consulting, Inc.

National Iranian Oil Company could pump an additional 700,000 b/d over the next few months to increase its current production of 2.5 million b/d to nearly 3.2 million b/d in three months, according to Kapoor.

"An additional 1 million b/d of Iranian crude flowing into the market has the ability to pare off between $5/b to $8/b from the cost of each barrel of oil, thereby providing much needed comfort to today's inflated prices," Kapoor said.

Energy costs as a percentage of GDP have increased to 8%, the highest since the global financial crisis in 2008, Bernstein Research said. Oil prices surging above $110/b Brent has pushed up oil costs to 4.5% of GDP that historically has been a prelude to recession and demand destruction.

Iran's imminent return

NIOC has been offering fewer cargoes to Chinese trading houses, Chinese trading sources, who deal with Iranian cargoes, said Feb. 28.

China currently imports Iranian barrels as crude grades from other origins, such as Malaysia Blend, Oman and Upper Zakum. Independent refineries in eastern China's Shandong province took almost all these cargoes, which amounted to 22.8 million mt, or 458,000 b/d in 2021, and 2.275 million mt in January, S&P Global data showed.

Some refiners in India, who are traditionally big buyers of Iran oil, also said that the lifting of sanctions on Iran could change the market dynamics at a time when prices are soaring, and current production level is unable to meet the post-COVID-19 pent-up demand.

While Asia's dependence on Russian crude is not huge, analysts are of the view that skyrocketing prices, and the scramble across the globe to buy non-Russian crude, despite Russian crude still not subject to sanctions, may increasingly squeeze supplies.

Asia imported about 1.6 million b/d of crude from Russia in 2021, accounting for less than 5% of regional imports, according to S&P Global. The majority of Russia's crude supplies are bought by China, with half of the volumes transported via pipelines.

"As such, Asia's direct impact from supply disruption of Russian crude will not be as significant when compared to Europe, which imported close to 2.7 million b/d," Lim said. "For now, the US has said that it wants to avoid hitting Russia's exports of oil and gas, but it is keeping targeted energy sanctions 'on the table' if the situation worsens."