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Iran eyeing more attacks on oil supply as part of sanctions relief push: analysts

Highlights

Offshore platforms, refineries, electric grids could be targets

Iran wants US to ease 'maximum pressure' sanctions campaign

Most analysts see US-Iran talks still unlikely

Washington — Without sanctions relief, Iran will likely attempt to attack Middle East oil targets as a way to push the US to back down from its maximum pressure campaign, analysts said.

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"Additional aggressive actions in the region are likely in the months ahead," Paul Sheldon, chief geopolitical advisor with S&P Global Platts Analytics, said in a recent note.

Iran may target offshore platforms at Saudi Arabia's Safaniya field and refineries in the Red Sea port of Yanbu, potentially impacting more than 3.5 million b/d in production, exports and refining capacity, analysts with Rapidan Energy Group said in a new report.

"All else being equal," said Henry Rome, an Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group, "Iran is incentivized to make riskier decisions, such as conducting additional significant attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure."

Sara Vakhshouri, president of SVB Energy International, said that Iran could also target UAE's electric grid system, as part of a physical or cyberattack.

"Because of the US zero export policy, Iran's strategic patience has come to an end," Vakhshouri said. "Instead, they're creating crisis to manage another crisis."

A potential follow-up to the September 14 attack on Saudi Aramco's Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities appears to be a question of when, not if with analysts.

The timing seems to depend on US willingness to ease sanctions, something some analysts see as a possibility despite repeated pledges from the Trump administration to exert a "maximum pressure" campaign on Tehran.

Rapidan analysts believe that Iran will likely postpone additional attacks as it waits for Middle East producers to pressure the US towards negotiations and, potentially, an easing of sanctions.

"Tehran has drawn up plans for follow-on attacks on critical oil infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, but is willing to give Gulf countries time to convince Trump to back off," Rapidan analysts wrote.

Iran wants the US to allow about 700,000 b/d in oil exports, rather than a complete easing of sanctions, ahead of talks, these analysts said, claiming that it expects the US to ease sanctions somewhat before the end of the year, allowing Iranian production to climb from about 2.2 million b/d to 2.7 million b/d in 2020.

Sheldon with Platts Analytics said he gives the chance of talks 50% odds and of a deal next year "far lower still."

Rome with the Eurasia Group said that he was "quite skeptical," that sanctions relief would even be offered before the 2020 US presidential election.

"Trump faces domestic constraints to offering total sanctions relief to Iran -- up to and including efforts by Congress to override such a step," Rome said. "Getting a meeting with [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] would be a flashy event, but it may well not be worth the price of admission."

Richard Nephew, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and the principal deputy coordinator for sanctions policy at the US State Department during the Obama administration, said sanctions relief was unlikely since it would require Trump to defy the wishes of his senior advisors.

"I think that getting to sanctions relief with Tehran requires a lot more engagement and negotiation, especially on regional matters... in order to get past the staff," Nephew said.

Since the US lifted waivers for Iranian crude purchases in May, Iran's oil output fell from 2.3 million b/d to 2.1 million b/d in September, according to the latest US Energy Information Administration data. According to the latest Platts OPEC survey, crude production fell to 2.23 million b/d in September. Iranian oil production has fallen by 1.1 million b/d over the past year, according to EIA.

-- Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Gary Gentile, newsdesk@spglobal.com

Platts Global Energy Outlook Forum | December 11, 2019 | New York

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