There have been calls on U.S. President Joe Biden to clamp down on lucrative oil and gas exports from Iran - widely believed to have played key role in the 7 October attacks by Palestinian political and military group Hamas on Israel. Some, such as U.S. senior Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, have even suggested that the U.S. and Israel destroy Iran’s oil infrastructure entirely. “Without oil, they [the Iranians] have no money [and]... Without money, terrorism loses its biggest benefactor,” he underlined. Rising oil and gas prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year have already caused massive spikes in inflation and the interest rates needed to combat them in the U.S. and many of its core allies. The loss of any further significant supplies of either would exacerbate this already dangerous economic and political situation, and Iran is a key source of both. The key questions for the oil and gas market now, then, is will the U.S. clamp down further on such supplies, and if it does what will happen to oil and gas prices?
As highlighted by OilPrice.com since early July, long-stalled efforts to negotiate and implement a new, compromise version of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, colloquially ‘the nuclear deal’) had reached their final stages for an agreement to be announced by the beginning of November. Ironically, given the 7 October attacks and ongoing events, the core aim of the new agreement on the U.S. side was to ensure that Israel did not unilaterally launch attacks on Iran’s still present and very busy nuclear facilities. Such attacks, Washington believed, would lead to a massive response from Iran that in turn could result in a broader conflict between Israel and multiple Arab states, as well as Iran. And one result of this, the U.S. reasoned, could be a massive spike in oil and gas prices, as happened in the 1973 Oil Crisis, which saw the benchmark WTI oil price shoot up around 267 percent, from about US$3 per barrel (pb) to around US$11 pb, as analysed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order. Another possible result would be that the superpower sponsors of Israel and the Arab states and Iran would eventually suck in these countries’ superpower sponsors – the U.S. on former’s side, and China and Russia on the side of the latter. Such a scenario had long been at the very top of the Pentagon’s wargaming scenarios that would lead to global nuclear war. A tangential aim of a successfully-implemented new JCPOA would be that greater supplies of oil and gas from Iran would enter the global markets in the following months, so bringing prices down. This would then reduce the economy-crimping effects of enduring high inflation and interest rates on the economies of the U.S. and its allies. As part of this negotiations towards the new version of the JCPOA, the U.S. had been taking a looser approach to enforcing existing sanctions on Iran oil and gas flows, and had also even pledged to unfreeze US$6 billion due to Iran from oil sold to South Korea in exchange for the release of five American prisoners held in Iran.
Both the unfreezing of the US$6 billion and the final agreement of the new JCPOA are on indefinite hold now following the 7 October attacks. Interestingly, though, oil and gas flows from Iran remain unaffected, as the U.S. has not blamed the Islamic Republic for the Hamas attacks on Israel. In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said unequivocally that: “When it comes to this specific attack [7 October by Hamas on Israel], in this moment, we don’t have direct evidence that Iran was involved in the attack, either in planning it or carrying it out.” Consequently, aside from a spike initially on the news of the attacks, oil and gas prices have done little to register the potential for chaos in the Middle East that still exists as a result. “The U.S. still regards the carrot and stick elements of a new JCPOA as being important pieces to play in moves to de-escalate this current conflict [between Hamas and Israel],” a senior European Union energy security source exclusively told OilPrice.com last week. “They [the State Department] think that pulling out of the previous [JCPOA] deal was a major error, as it meant that the West had no insight and no control over anything that Iran might do, and they think some deal is better than no deal,” he added.
However, even if there is another escalation that pushes the U.S. into more rigorously seeking to enforce sanctions against Iranian oil and gas flows, it is likely to be as unsuccessful as all previous attempts have been in practical terms. As exclusively highlighted by OilPrice.com back in early August 2020, and analysed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order, U.S. claims that it was close to achieving its aim of reducing Iran’s oil and gas exports to zero were absolute nonsense. Comments at that time that data released by China’s General Administration of Customs (GAC) was clear evidence that China did not import any crude oil from Iran in June ‘for the first time since January 2007’ were also not true. For a start, crude oil from Iran that went into ‘bonded storage’ was not put through Chinese Customs at all – and was not even recorded as having been ‘paid for’ - and consequently did not appear on any GAC documentation. This holds true to this day.
There were other reasons why China’s (and other countries’) Iranian imports did not show up as well, as also analysed in depth in my new book on the new global oil market order. One key method was Iran’s habitual rebranding of its own (sanctioned) oil flows into flows from (unsanctioned) Iraq, over which it enjoys an immense economic and political hold. This rebranding is further helped by the fact that many of Iran’s major oil fields are part of big reservoirs that it shares with its neighbour. Indeed, Iran’s long-serving former Petroleum Minister, Bijan Zanganeh, highlighted in 2020 that: “What we export is not under Iran’s name […] The documents are changed over and over, as well as [the] specifications.” Other tried-and-trusted methods used by Iran for avoiding sanctions include turning off the ‘automatic identification system’ on ships carrying its oil, and ship-to-ship transfers to tankers from sympathetic countries. Iran is so proud of its ability to avoid all sanctions thrown at it that in December 2018 at the Doha Forum, Iran’s then-Foreign Minister, Mohammad Zarif, stated that: “If there is an art that we have perfected in Iran, [that] we can teach to others for a price, it is the art of evading sanctions.”
So, even if there was the political will in the West Wing of the White House to try to stop Iranian flows of oil and gas, in practical terms it would make very little difference to how much made its way into the global oil and gas markets. But there seems to be no particular desire to even attempt this in Washington, as it cannot risk further spikes in oil and gas prices so close to the next U.S. presidential election. As also thoroughly analysed in my new book on the new global oil market order, since the end of World War I in 2018, the sitting U.S. president has won re-election 11 times out of 11 if the U.S. economy was not in recession within two years of an upcoming election. However, sitting U.S. presidents who went into a re-election campaign with the economy in recession won only one time out of seven. And rising oil and gas prices have a dramatic effect on the U.S. economy. Historically every US$10 pb change in the price of crude oil results in a 25-30 cent change in the price of a gallon of gasoline. And for every 1 cent that the average price per gallon of gasoline rises, more than US$1 billion per year in consumer spending is lost.
By Simon Watkins for Oilprice.com
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