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Iran still sees role for OPEC, despite less clout

Tehran — For decades, through military wars and oil price wars, Iran has entrusted much of its OPEC relations to its longstanding diplomat Hossein Kazempour.

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As Iran's OPEC governor, Kazempour played an instrumental behind-the-scenes role in the organization's often fraught negotiations on production policy, aiding a succession of oil ministers.

The well-respected Kazempour's death on May 16 leaves major shoes to fill at a critical time, with the coronavirus pandemic wreaking havoc on the global economy and the US applying its "maximum pressure" sanctions campaign on Iran.

For now, Amir Hossein Zamaninia, Iran's deputy oil ministry for trade and international affairs, is filling the OPEC governor role on an interim basis, while a search for an official successor is underway.

He said Iran, as a founding member, would continue to play a critical role in OPEC and the now expanded OPEC+ alliance with Russia, though the relationships and clout Kazempour had built up over his years of service will be difficult to replicate.

Iran is currently exempt from OPEC+ production quotas, a hard-won concession Kazempour helped negotiate in late 2018.

"Anyone who replaces Kazempour, it will take time to work like he did effectively," Zamaninia said in an interview with S&P Global Platts. "Definitely the successor cannot do it as well as Kazempour. It takes time. But we have good multilateral experts."

Platts spoke with Zamaninia about Iran's OPEC relations, how it is managing under US sanctions and the outlook for the oil market. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

PLATTS: How will Iran replace Kazempour's influence, especially in the way he would deal with OPEC hawks, such as Saudi Arabia or the UAE?

ZAMANINIA: Generally, the environment is a tough one. The global multilateral environment and the environment within international organizations has hardened. And this will certainly compound problems for the successor to Kazempour. But as I said, we have good experts and one of their traits is networking with stakeholders.

PLATTS: What made him so effective?

ZAMANINIA: Hossein Kazempour's political line was clear, but he could work with anyone, sit with anyone and discuss an issue and bring it home. He was a consensus builder, not only in the oil market, but in domestic political issues, too. He was an honest diplomat and honest politician. His frankness and power of argument was well known to all. Kazempour didn't need the oil ministry's salary and this was a very important factor. He was a successful businessman, and apparently he wouldn't receive any salary [from the ministry]. This would give him a liberty to pursue what he would think as an expert and bring it about.

PLATTS: What is the ministry searching for in a replacement?

ZAMANINIA: The search is difficult itself, and another reason that makes it even harder is because we are in the last year of our administration. If it were a new government with seven, eight years ahead, then it wouldn't be this hard. The climate is not good. The oil market is very disturbed, OPEC's role is not the way it used to be before, [but] the role of OPEC and OPEC+ has become important in creating a semblance of balance in oil prices and the market.

PLATTS: Who are the candidates?

ZAMANINIA: There is a list whose names I won't give away. We have seven, eight candidates, both inside oil and outside oil. There are some from the Foreign Ministry, too.

PLATTS: Will you accept the job if it is offered to you?

ZAMANINIA: I am now the ad hoc governor. There was a meeting a few days ago, and we had to announce it to [OPEC]. There is a job and someone's got to do it. Both [oil minister Bijan Zanganeh] and I are actively searching to choose someone as governor, but at the same time, so long this choice has not been made, I will be caretaker.

PLATTS: Iran has lost both Kazempour, and its share of the oil market due to sanctions. Is that worrisome for you?

ZAMANINIA: I don't like to use the word "worrisome." Our challenge has augmented. Production is low, the market is very limited, unfair US sanctions are still used against Iran, consumption has dropped and this issue of COVID-19 has doubled the problems. That is why I was saying the international environment has generally become fragile and challenging. Security-wise, economically, oil-wise, issues have become very complicated and challenging.

PLATTS: How is Iran navigating these challenging conditions and defending its oil industry?

ZAMANINIA: Well, with the US [presidential] elections, it's unlikely that the sanctions situation shifts until November. The oil market will improve gradually. There are already indications that consumption is increasing gradually, at least this is the case in China. We think that within a month or two, the rest of the world will gradually match it, but our problem is the sanctions. The problem is how to sell our oil. Occasionally in media they talk about smuggling, but it's not smuggling oil. It is, rather, a legitimate business that the Americans have sanctioned. This doesn't make it smuggling. [The sanctions], however, have had a silver lining for the Iranian economy that is facing many challenges. It is gradually causing a structural adjustment to less lean on oil income. At the end of the day, it seems that in 5-10 years, Iran will find itself in a state where it will not much need its oil income. Therefore, the harms we experienced by the oil price decline are much more manageable than many other producing countries.

PLATTS: Is it correct that Iran has only two or three oil customers now?

ZAMANINIA: No, it's not correct.

PLATTS: Are there more?

ZAMANINIA: I don't want to talk about this. No figures. I want to keep it ambiguous for you and those who read your report.

PLATTS: Has the coronavirus pandemic affected Iran's production, whether hygiene-wise or demand-wise?

ZAMANINIA: Hygiene considerations have not caused any problems for us because our [health officials] have worked on that front very proactively and effectively. Coronavirus and hygiene considerations have not impacted our production. [Lower] demand for oil has been impacting it, however.

PLATTS: Has Iran's policy regarding OPEC changed at all given the current market situation?

ZAMANINIA: Iran's policy has not changed. We think OPEC still has potential to play a role in creating market balance.