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Analysis: Europe leads petrochemical investment forays into Iran post nuclear deal

Highlights

After unfurling the British flag at the UK embassy campus in Tehran on August 23, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond had two agenda items on his itinerary that very day.

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One was to meet his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the other was to visit the country's petroleum ministry.

Iran is OPEC's third-largest oil producer, behind Saudi Arabia and Iraq, with output of around 2.87 million b/d.

Yet, while oil remains the main driver of Iran's economy, other sectors are also attracting attention, and not just from the UK.


"Everyone wants to be prepared," one Dubai-based analyst with a European bank said. "Iran has a range of [petrochemicals] investments opportunities to offer. They range from upstream to downstream."

Delegations from France, Germany, Spain and Italy have visited Iran so far this year, representing a thaw in relations after many western nations scaled back their trade with the country in the wake of US-led sanctions in 2011.

It is an interest that Iran's petrochemical sector is keen to court, not only for direct investment in petrochemical plants but also licensing of technology that could improve production.

In July, Moayed Sadr Hossein, the chair of Iran's parliamentary petrochemical and mining subcommittee, was quoted by local media as saying that Iran was seeking foreign direct investment of $85 billion in its petrochemical sector.

According to Eduardo van-Zeller Neto, a Dubai-based partner at Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, this translates to potential annual capital expenditure of $8 billion, which would double the current petrochemicals production capacity of 60 million mt/year to 120 million mt/year over the next five years and to 180 million mt/year over the next ten years.

"[While this is] to be taken with a pinch of salt and delays are expected...[it] clearly indicates the high investment plans are going ahead. Things may take a bit longer in Iran but they will happen," said van-Zeller Neto.

He added that Iran's National Petrochemical Company, once the nation's largest petrochemicals producer, has assumed the role of regulator of the wider industry.

Considering the vast amount of oil and gas reserves the country has, there are no feedstock barriers for expanding production of petrochemical building blocks, such as ethylene and propylene, which are precursors to most plastics.

Iran's reserves in the South Pars field, the world's largest gas deposit which it shares with Qatar, are enormous. Spread over an area of 9,700 square km, the field holds reserves of up to 51 Tcm of natural gas and 7.9 Bcm of condensates.

While the country can leverage its gas supplies to produce olefins, it can bank on condensates to produce aromatics, van-Zeller Neto said.

On Tuesday, Iran announced the launch of seven new gas fields and said that this will enhance its production capacity by 100 million cu m.

Meanwhile, Ali Akbar Shabanpour, the managing director of Pars Oil and Gas Company, was quoted this week as saying he will visit London later this year to seek investment in a project to extract oil from South Pars.

Besides Europe, India -- which continued trade with Iran during the years of sanctions -- has expressed keen interest in investing.

According to local media, Indian Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari said Wednesday that the country is willing to invest $15.2 billion to build projects in Iran.

DOWNSTREAM OPPORTUNITY

While crude and energy drive Iran's economy, it is the downstream petrochemicals and manufacturing industry that could drive highly skilled highly paid jobs in a country that has seen its unemployment rate rise from 10.5% in 2008 to over 13% in 2013.

Like other Middle Eastern nations, Iran is seeking to extract maximum profitability from its hydrocarbon resources, and this involves building up a strong olefins and polymers production capacity.

Since the onset of sanctions, its olefins production capacity has outpaced that of downstream polymers and this gives it the option of exporting ethylene -- a move that could impact European cracker margins.

"Middle East ethylene cargoes already come from the Red Sea into Europe. Iran could play a role there," said a London-based analyst with an investment bank.

Iran is on track to build four huge ethane crackers, three of which are worldscale.

However, these have been delayed for at least four years due to the sanctions, but their product will very likely hit the market within the next few months.

The two 1 million mt/year crackers at Assaluyeh -- Olefins 11 and Olefins 12 -- and the 450,000 mt/year Gachsaran facility are already complete, while the startup date for the 1 million mt/year cracker at Ilam could not be confirmed.

Backed by abundant ethylene supplies, Iran is slowly beefing up its polyethylene production capacity.

According to Platts analysis, Iranian annual polyethylene production capacity is expected to rise by at least 3.8 million mt over the next 10 years, approximately doubling existing capacity.

Yet this polymer production is expected to take some time, meaning the country in the meantime will have surplus ethylene.

Years of sanctions have whipsawed Iran's ambitions to olefins and the country is yet to offer opportunities to produce aromatics.

According to Platts Petrochemicals Analytics unit, Iran certainly has the potential to produce aromatics, considering its vast oil reserves.

But Platts analysts say there are currently there are no known refinery projects planned in the country, potentially limiting production of liquids required to produce aromatics.

However, this could change if Iran is able to attract new investments into refineries.

--Shashank Shekhar, shashank.shekhar@platts.com
--Edited by James Leech, james.leech@platts.com