As the oil markets remain focused on the re-emergence of Iran as a major oil producer following the recent lifting of sanctions, another oversupply storm is brewing as the Islamic Republic appears keen to start mining its substantial metals reserves.
On January 17 Iran emerged from years of economic isolation as world powers lifted sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear weapons ambitions. The controversial deal, stickhandled by U.S. President Obama, will free up tens of billions of assets and allow foreign firms to do business with a country once (and still by its enemies) considered an international pariah.
The addition of 500,000 barrels of oil a day could further depress the price of crude oil which is struggling to break through a resistance level in the low-$30s, although there have been rumblings lately that Iran may increase output more gradually than initially thought, in order to prevent adding downward pressure on prices.
Iran relies heavily on petrodollars for its foreign exchange; the drop in oil prices has hit its treasury especially hard, with losses in the billions. That has led President Hassan Rouhani and other members of his government to focus on non-oil exports, including minerals, which up to now have been underutilized.
According to various sources, including the U.S. and British Geological Surveys, Iran is among the top 15 minerals-rich countries, with over 700 billion tonnes of potential reserves - about 7 percent of the world's total - worth over $700 billion. Among its mostly untapped deposits (less than a tenth of the country has been surveyed) containing 68 types of minerals, the most important are zinc, iron ore, coal, copper, lead, bauxite (aluminum) and uranium. There are an estimated 3,000 mines, which are around 90 percent state-owned. Iran is the fourth-biggest supplier of iron ore to China and has the world's ninth largest reserves of copper at 32.5 million tonnes. The country is also a major Middle Eastern steel producer.
Yet despite its metal riches, mining has up to now contributed less than one percent to Iran's gross domestic product. One of the biggest barriers is technology. Deprived of foreign investment due to sanctions, Iran has not been able to attract specialists in mineral extraction and processing, nor update its equipment. A lot of mining machinery in Iran is decades-old. Limited railway capacity, low volumes at mining facilities, and high interest rates are further brakes on industrial development.
However with the end of sanctions, foreign firms are lining up to capitalize on the potential. In September executives of Kobe Steel Ltd, Japan's fourth-largest steelmaker, and state-run Japan, Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp (JOGMEC) met officials in Tehran to discuss cooperation in mining. The meeting was part of a plan to attract some $29 billion in foreign investment to the sector.
Last week, Iranian trade minister Mehdi Karbasian said the country hopes to finalize $5.4 billion in investment plans during President Rohani's visit to Italy. Potential deals include investments in steel production in southern Iran.
While the lifting of sanctions could certainly lead to greater mining potential, in a way it couldn't come at a worse time, with prices for most of the commodities hiding under Iranian soil at multi-year lows. The slump in iron ore prices in particular has killed off a significant amount of export tonnage, especially since so much Iranian ore goes to China, whose growth has slowed. Reuters reported in September that Iran's iron ore exports fell by almost a half during the first eight months of 2015. To compete in the global iron ore market, Iran must be cost-competitive with the two largest and lowest-cost iron producers - Brazil and Australia.
On a volume basis, Iran has a long way to go. According to the International Steel Statistics Bureau, the country exported 22 million tonnes of iron ore in 2014, compared to top shipper Australia at 754 million tonnes.
But does Iran really want or need to compete? According to the Iron Ore Producers and Exporters Association of Iran (IROPEX), Iran's iron ore shipments will likely drop from 15-16 million tonnes in 2015 to under 10 million tonnes by 2017, as it seeks to lift domestic steel output from 16 million tonnes in 2015 to 25 million tonnes in 2025. To reach that goal, Iran would need to bump up its iron ore production from 45 million tonnes in 2014 to 159 million tonnes. With those ambitious goals, will there be enough excess iron ore to export?
Unless there is an imminent bull market for metals again, which seems improbable given that most commentators consider the China-driven supercycle for commodities to be over, there is unlikely to be a dramatic impact on metals markets from Iran's return to mining. This is especially true given the country's desire to use its production of iron ore for domestic consumption in steelmaking.
On the other hand, the fact that Iran is now considered open for business will definitely pique the interest of foreign mining companies, both major and junior miners, to conduct exploration activities. As more mines are permitted, this could result in more business for mining equipment manufacturers and suppliers. Al-Monitor points out that efforts are being made to cut red tape by streamlining the permitting process into a “single window system” whereby potential investors do not have to go through different government bodies to obtain licenses.
The 2002 Foreign Investment Promotion and Investment Act gives foreigners ownership rights, the opportunity to transfer profits out of the country in foreign currencies and, importantly for international mining companies sensitive to political risk, “guarantees that the government will pay compensation for any investments in projects that are nationalized or expropriated,” according to Al-Monitor.
By Andrew Topf for Oilprice.com
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