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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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U.S. May Have To Back Off Iran Sanctions Again

The U.S. has vowed to zero out Iran’s oil exports, and after a surprising display of leniency last November, American officials have signaled that they won’t be as flexible when sanctions waivers expire in May. However, the U.S. government may once again find itself in a bind.

The Trump administration granted eight waivers to countries late last year, allowing them to continue to import a certain amount of oil from Iran for a six-month period. The waivers surprised the oil market – and disappointed Saudi Arabia, in particular – leading to a selloff in oil prices. But the U.S. government felt compelled to grant waivers precisely because the oil market was extremely tight, or at least it appeared that way with Brent trading north of $80 per barrel in October.

This time around, when the waivers expire in May, the Trump administration has vowed things will be different. “We are going to continue our path to get to zero,” Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran, said earlier this month, referring to the U.S. government’s stated desire to close off Iran’s oil exports. Hook boasted that Iran’s oil exports had fallen to around 1 million barrels per day (mb/d), down from the 2.7-mb/d peak from last year.

But the Trump administration may be severely limited in its effort to further tighten the screws on Iran – and its lack of flexibility could come down to the administration’s own policies.

The oil market could be too tight by the time the U.S. needs to decide on whether or not to extend the waivers, and the tightness may be the result of the Trump administration’s use of sanctions in an entirely separate part of the world: Venezuela.

It is a little early to say how much oil will be knocked offline in Venezuela from U.S. sanctions, but at least 500,000 bpd of oil exports to the U.S. are immediately in jeopardy. Those barrels will have to find another home. It’s conceivable that the Maduro government could find another buyer for its oil, likely for a hefty discount, but it still needs diluent to process its heavy oil before it is ready for export. Related: The Only Way For The Aramco IPO Is Downstream

Up until recently, Venezuela sourced that diluent from the U.S., but now PDVSA will need to find it elsewhere. The risk is that production declines accelerate because of the inability to process its heavy crude. “Production in Venezuela is likely to decrease by more than the shortfall in exports to the US of approx. 500,000 barrels per day,” Commerzbank wrote in a note on Wednesday. To be sure, Venezuela was expected to suffer from ongoing production declines anyway, but U.S. sanctions could accelerate those losses.

The Trump administration is banking on Saudi Arabia making up for any shortfall. Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin said that America’s “friends in the Middle East will be happy to make up the supply.” But that is far from a foregone conclusion. Saudi Arabia said that it would lower its output to 10.1 million barrels per day (mb/d) in February – below its required ceiling – and keep it at that level through June. Riyadh does not want to ride to the rescue of Donald Trump a second time around.

That means that the oil market could be significantly tighter by the time sanctions waivers expire in May, which could force Trump to back off once again. “The Venezuela sanctions, along with sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, will create a tighter market for heavy crude oil,” said Sara Vakhshouri, the president of SVB Energy International, according to Foreign Policy. “[T]would lead to another round of 180-day U.S. waivers on Iran’s oil exports.” Related: Oil Markets Unmoved By Modest Inventory Build

Moreover, Trump’s aggressive approach towards Iran does not have nearly as much backing as its quest for regime change in Venezuela. While major European powers are leaning towards backing Juan Guaidó, essentially signing off on America’s approach of toppling Maduro, they are very much opposed to the U.S.’ “maximum pressure” campaign in Iran.

In fact, France, Germany and the UK are finalizing the special purpose vehicle (SPV) just this week, a financing mechanism that will allow European companies to skirt U.S. sanctions and continue to do business with Iran. There is debate over how effective the SPV will be, but the effort demonstrates the lengths to which Europe is going to ensure that Iran still enjoys the benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal so as to keep the accord alive.

However, it could be the oil market itself that keeps the U.S. in check. If oil prices rise in the coming months – in part because of American efforts at disrupting Venezuelan oil – then Iran could be spared the worst for a second time.


By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on January 31 2019 said:
    Even without the crisis in Venezuela, the United States has no alternative but to renew the sanction waivers it granted to eight countries in November last year when they expire in May this year or issue new ones if only for the Trump administration to use them as a fig leaf to mask the fact that their zero exports option is out of reach and that the sanctions are doomed to fail.

    US sanctions on Iran have so far failed to cost Iranian crude oil exports the loss of even a single barrel of oil. This has exerted a bearish influence on prices since the global oil market has already discounted a possible supply deficit as a result of the sanctions.

    The eight countries to whom the US granted sanction waivers didn’t need them in the first place to import Iranian crude possibly with the exception of Japan and South Korea and would have continued to do so with or without waivers.

    Furthermore, claims by Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative for Iran that Iran’s oil exports had fallen to around 1 million barrels per day (mbd), down from the 2.7-mbd peak from last year is a plain untruth. Iran’s oil exports never reached 2.7 mbd. They only averaged 2.125 mbd in 2017 according to the authoritative 2018 OPEC Annual Statistical Bulletin.

    Moreover, the Trump administration can’t bank on Saudi Arabia making up for any shortfall. Saudi Arabia made a serious mistake in June last year when it decided under intense pressure from President Trump to jointly add with Russia 650,000 barrels a day (b/d) to an already existing glut in the market causing oil prices to slump by 43% and inflicting losses on its economy and the economies of OPEC members. Saudi Arabia may decide this time to shun any request from President Trump to raise production in anticipation of something that is not going to happen, namely loss of Iranian oil exports.

    As for events in Venezuela, US sanctions don’t harm Venezuela’s leaders, they only deepen the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

    Whatever oil Venezuela exports to the US estimated at 500,000 b/d can easily be diverted to China and India. Moreover, China and Russia which both are owed some $30 bn will do their utmost to prevent the Venezuelan economy from collapse. Furthermore, these sanctions will hardly impact on the global oil market and prices unless there is a complete collapse of Venezuela’s oil industry as a result of a general strike by workers of the National Oil Company of Venezuela, PDVSA, or a civil war. These sanctions are doomed to fail like the ones imposed on Iran.

    Venezuela can easily replace imports of a diluent needed for blending with its extra-heavy oil from the United States with imports from China, Russia and Iran.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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