As the United States edges closer to issuing a fresh round of sanctions against Iran, foreign investors so far unmoved by international pressure will end up doing business with a Revolutionary Guard that makes even local firms nervous, an analyst warns.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, known as the IRGC or Revolutionary Guard, is a military branch set up after the 1979 revolution to protect the regime and has become more ingrained in the Iranian economy particularly under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration.
In recent weeks, the Revolutionary Guard has declared that it can assume control of the energy industry if Westerners flee under the crush of coming U.S. sanctions. Over the last two-and-a-half decades, the powerful force has gradually moved into sectors like construction, energy and telecommunications, said Alex Vatanka, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Given Iran’s oil and gas reserves and the country’s reliance on revenues from crude exports, “it’s very logical for the IRGC’s economic arm” to seek an even stronger footing in the energy sector as U.S. and United Nations financial penalties against firms operating in Iran pick up steam, Vatanka told OilPrice.com.
The IRGC has the “political muscle to push political contracts” through, but it is questionable whether the group is best-suited to coordinate these efforts on a domestic level, he said. “We know their intentions in the Iranian oil industry, and [local firms are] very often hesitant when they see IRGC involvement,” he noted.
Foreign companies would be “equally, if not more hesitant, to deal with the IRGC” because the organization is at the forefront of any U.S. government or U.N. attempt to apply new sanctions, he said.
“So it really just raises the stakes for any foreign participant in these projects,” Vatanka said.
The overriding challenge is whether a firm, domestic or otherwise, can ever have a “fair struggle with the IRGC, if I can put it this way,” Vatanka explained. “They are politically so powerful that they can nullify, change terms and take the credit for anything that’s done positively and claim it to be their own. And if you stand up to them, they would basically label you against the Islamic Revolution.”
He said questions also linger about the kind of revenue-sharing the Revolutionary Guard would offer international companies.
And whether the Revolutionary Guard can even fulfill Iran’s “very big intentions” in the gas sector remains to be seen, Vatanka said, noting “there’s no evidence to suggest that they have, in any way or shape, invested technologically in energy. If it was about missiles, it would have been a totally different matter.”
In March, Iranian Oil Minister Masoud Mirkazemi said the Islamic regime is seeking a $200 billion investment in oil, gas and refinery industries over the next five years.
Iran has only waning pools of oil but may become a “huge provider of natural gas on a global scale,” Vatanka said.
Iran holds the world’s third-largest proven oil reserves and the world’s second-largest natural gas reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This includes the South Pars gas field, the “largest natural gas deposit in the world, which Iran shares with the state of Qatar,” added Vatanka.
The Iranian oil industry has traditionally been aligned with “pragmatic conservatives,” he added, but there has been a shift toward “principalists, the people around Ahmadinejad,” particularly in “this pivotal” sector of the Iranian economy.
In April, Ahmad Ghalebani took over as head of the National Iranian Oil Co. from oil-industry veteran Seifollah Jashnsaz, according to Iranian press reports. Like the Iranian oil minister, Ghalebani does not hail from the oil industry, the reports state.
Regardless of the typical rhetoric emanating from Iran, the country has always had a “pretty well-oiled bureaucracy,” but these “relatively new faces and voices” have spurred more uncertainty for foreign firms, Vatanka said.
Iran has pressured a number of firms to honor previous agreements or pull out of the country entirely. Iran recently gave a two-week ultimatum to Royal-Dutch Shell and Repsol of Spain to forge ahead with their involvement in projects related to the South Pars gas field or be replaced by local firms.
Around the same time, the regime also announced that it is awarding major gas contracts to Chinese, Malaysian and Indian firms for South Pars instead of Western firms widely regarded as frontrunners, according to Iranian news reports.
India is not likely to give up its investments in Iran “without considerable pressure” from the U.N., noted Robert Ebel, a senior adviser in the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Not only does India have business interests in the country, Iran provides it with “over 400,000 barrels of oil a day,” Ebel told OilPrice.com.
At the moment, India has proposed resuming talks with Iran on importing gas through a pipeline passing through Pakistan, according to Indian press reports.
China, which has a big interest in Iran as an oil supplier, is unlikely to be fully supportive of the United States and the U.N., Ebel said. About 430,000 barrels of oil move from Iran to China every day, he added. China, India and Japan probably account for half of all Iranian oil exports, Ebel noted.
On the weekend, the head of Brazil's energy regulator was reported as saying that his country could assist Iran with equipment and engineering if Iran offered drills to help Brazil in the exploration of deep-water oil.
Despite these holdouts, many firms have already caved into pressure and abandoned some of their investments as talk of sanctions builds, said Ebel.
Russia’s Lukoil has stopped gas sales to Iran, while India's Reliance Industries will not renew a contract to import crude oil from Iran this year.
China and Japan are cutting crude-oil imports from Iran. Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura have all stopped their gas supplies to the country. And Shell also stopped selling gas to the regime.
At a congressional hearing last week, the U.S. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee issued international firms a stark warning: “Either do business with Iran’s $250 billion-a-year economy, or do business with America’s $13-trillion economy, but you cannot do business with both.”
The proposed U.S. legislation is known as the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act and will be tougher on firms than its predecessor, the Iran Sanctions Act. The revised law will pursue financial institutions and firms that do business in Iran’s energy sector or help the regime build its refining capacity.
The Government Accountability Office, an arm of Congress, released a report during the hearing that found that seven of 41 companies previously identified as doing business with Iran received combined payments of nearly $880 million from the Defense Department. This includes $319 million to Repsol and $312 million to Total of France for the purchase of fuel.
Ultimately, the relationship between Iran and the international community will be tough to walk away from, Vatanka of the Middle East Institute told OilPrice.com. While Iran still needs Western technology to expand its energy industry, he said, large companies seeking growing markets will be hard-pressed to “totally look away and abandon Iran for good.”
Anaylsys by. Fawzia Sheikh for OilPrice.com