Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office Aug. 5 with no time to lose if the country is to reclaim its standing in the global oil market.
More than six weeks have passed since nuclear deal negotiations were suspended in mid-June. Further delay in obtaining sanctions relief will find Tehran facing an increasingly competitive oil market, with OPEC, Russia and several other allies now planning to ramp up crude production by 400,000 b/d every month through the end of 2022.
If Iran can clinch an agreement with the US to relax sanctions restricting its oil sales, it may have to bargain hard with its previous buyers or entice new customers with price discounts.
"Consumers have all the right to go for substitutes when supply isn't available from Iran. Producers and fellow OPEC and non-OPEC members are entitled to fill the vacuum in the market," said Fereydoun Barkeshli, who worked for decades in the Iranian oil sector and is president of the Vienna Energy Research Group. "I believe that the era of easy oil marketing is over for Iran."
Iran produces mostly heavy and medium sour crudes, competing against grades from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Russia, the UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Venezuela and others.
Its main export grade is Iran Light, with 33.6 API gravity and 1.46% sulfur content, according to an assay published by state-owned National Iranian Oil Co.
Under the OPEC+ agreement, Iran is exempt from a production quota, but its oil exports have been severely hit due to sanctions reimposed by former President Donald Trump in 2018 after the US abandoned the nuclear deal.
Since April, Iranian crude production has risen a modest 50,000 b/d, while the rest of the OPEC+ alliance has hiked output by about 1 million b/d, according to S&P Global Platts estimates. More OPEC+ crude will be coming as a result of the group's new supply accord, and several members will be targeting the same key markets in Asia as Iran.
"Regaining Iran's share in the global oil market requires a strategic program and smart diplomacy," Mostafa Nakhaie, spokesman of the parliament's energy committee, told state media July 30. "We need to boost relations with OPEC members and old customers of our oil. We also should try to find new markets and customers."
Seeking new customers
Raisi officials have acknowledged the task in front of them, but the new government's plans for NIOC remain to be seen.
Raisi has not yet named his oil minister, who would represent Iran at OPEC meetings, replacing long-time veteran Bijan Zanganeh. OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo will attend Raisi's inauguration.
In the meantime, Barkeshli said NIOC has been negotiating with several Southeast Asian countries that have not typically imported its crude, including the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Bangladesh, in addition to its traditional customers in China, India, Japan and South Korea, as well as Europe.
Through the sanctions, China has remained a buyer of Iranian crude, and some shipments have also gone to Venezuela, according to market sources.
But exports to the others are a non-starter until sanctions are lifted.
In previous statements, Raisi has been generally supportive of forging a new deal, but his reputation is that of an anti-West hardliner.
Several weeks of negotiations this spring in Vienna stalled over the US' insistence that Iran return its uranium enrichment activities to previously agreed levels, while Iran sought immediate sanctions relief and guarantees that future US administrations would not undo the pact.
The discussions could also now be complicated by the deadly July 29 attack on an oil products tanker off the coast of Oman, which the US, UK and Israel have blamed on Iran. Shippers in the region are on high alert for any retaliatory action. Iran has denied involvement.
Accommodating Iran's return
Platts Analytics still expects a deal can be forged after Raisi is inaugurated, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who controls much of Iran's policy, seeking to give the new president a lift at the start of his term.
"However, risks of talks derailing will rise the longer they drag on," Platts Analytics said in a recent note.
A framework agreement in September or October could involve interim oil export waivers, leading to full sanctions relief by Q1 2022, Platts Analytics said, which would allow crude and condensate exports to rise from about 750,000 b/d in July to 1.3 million b/d in December and 1.7 million b/d in March 2022.
By then, OPEC+ crude production would have risen by 3.2 million b/d if the alliance follows through with its scheduled output increases.
OPEC+ officials have said they are waiting to see how Iran's oil outlook evolves and that they will accommodate its return to pre-sanctions levels. But at this stage, no specific plans have been made.
Robust oil demand growth for now may keep all producers happy, but any dip or plateau in consumption, as many analysts say could happen this winter, will put the squeeze on Iran.
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