The recent nuclear non-proliferation agreement between Iran and the U.S. has created a firestorm debate in the Middle East and both sides of the Atlantic. While the deal is supposedly all about nuclear power and nuclear bombs, its practical implications are all about oil. But the conclusions we should make about its impact on the energy sector are far from clear. A ratification of the deal would allow Iran to make lucrative long term production and distribution contracts with foreign energy firms. However, freely flowing oil from Iran would add significant new oil supply into the world markets, disrupt U.S. plans to become an energy exporter, and could potentially put further downward pressure on prices.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports Iran’s proven oil reserves as the fourth largest in the world, at 158 billion barrels, or about 10% of the world’s crude oil reserves. It also has the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas (Oil & Gas Journal, January 2015). But as a result of the series of sanctions laid on Iran by the United States and the United Nations for Iran’s failure to abide by nuclear inspections, which have essentially blockaded the nation, these reserves have done little good for the Iranian economy or the theocratic Muslim government that holds the country in its tight grip.
The IMF estimates that Iran’s oil and natural gas export revenue had been $118 billion as recently as 2011/12. But by 2012/2013 revenues fell by 47 percent to $63 billion. Revenues declined another 10 percent in 2013/14 to $56 billion (Islamic Republic of Iran, Country Report, April 14, 2014). By May 2015, Iran’s daily oil production had fallen from 4 million barrels in 2008 to just over 2.8 million barrels.
It goes without saying that the removal of the sanctions regime will allow Iran to resume exports at levels seen in the past. And if Iran is true to its word, and that its nuclear program is indeed focused on the development of nuclear power plants, then it is likely that its domestic demand for fossil fuels will fall, thereby allowing for even greater exports.
The first issue regarding Iran’s new oil flow is how easily will it be able to reestablish its former customer links and sell its oil, regardless of increased production. Having destabilized the Middle East by killing Saddam Hussein, the U.S. may wish now to leave the areas' nations alone to sort out the resulting mess. Into this void we can be sure that the Chinese and Russians will stride forcefully and deliberately.
Even if Iran is successful in regaining former customers, and selling down its inventory, how quickly can its production be increased? The Iranian oil infrastructure has been neglected for years and Iran needs to rebuild it desperately. Fortunately, Western expertise in energy development is by far the most advanced, which will give Western interests a leg up on Chinese and Russian rivals. But Chinese cash and strategic support may prove decisive.
Reuters reports that, in the opinion of 25 economists and oil analysts, Iran could be able to increase its oil production by up to 500,000 barrels a day this year and reach 750,000 a day by mid-2016. This will add to a current global oversupply of some 2.6 million barrels a day.
Meanwhile, as the price of oil remains relatively depressed, production wells in the U.S. and other producing nations, planned and established when oil prices were much higher, are drifting off stream. Finally, there is increasing evidence that recession may be felt internationally, reducing at least the rate of growth of oil demand if not the absolute level of demand in some countries.
Today’s oil market faces a global supply overhang and price weakness. Iran’s new oil production and exportation is not likely to come on line for at least a year or two, provided the treaty is ratified. But when that oil does start to flow, the new supply could add to downward price pressures. However, the amounts are unlikely to greatly affect the totality of the global marketplace and by that time whatever inflationary effects there may be of continued monetary expansion in America and Europe should act as a stronger force pulling prices upward.
In total then, the return of Iran to the global energy market should have a beneficial effect on the global economy, both in pushing down prices and providing lucrative development work for oil companies around the world. However, the economic aspects of the deal are largely insignificant in comparison to the geopolitical ramifications.
President Obama’s nuclear arms deal leaves open to debate whether Iran will become a nuclear power within the next decade, if not earlier. Unleashing a nuclear arms race in a highly unstable area of the world would render oil supplies sourced from there considerably less secure and unattractive, possibly even at lower prices, to consumer nations, including the 500 million strong EU.
The deal will also threaten the longstanding alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The implicit arrangement between the two countries has always been that the Saudis would direct the lion’s share of its oil exports to the United States in exchange for American support of regional Saudi security interests. Shiite dominated Iran has always been one of Sunni-led Saudi Arabia’s top concerns. If the U.S. and Iran drift closer together, Saudi Arabia will surely seek other partners who are more supportive of its interests.
No one knows what such a Middle East will look like. But given the volatility of the region, change is unlikely to be pretty.