When news broke last summer that international sanctions against Iran were set to be lifted, it sparked a wave of interest in the country’s potential that only intensified in the months that followed.
Speculation was rife about the flood of investment that may lie ahead, particularly from Western Europe, and the bountiful possibilities that lay in wait across multiple markets.
Such suppositions intensified in January, with confirmation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of Iran’s compliance with a deal to monitor its current and future nuclear capabilities. The agency affirmed the expected lifting of sanctions and described the development as ‘an important day for the international community’.
The news had been expected to officially start a deluge of investment in the country, triggering the sale of Iran’s oil internationally and unlocking an estimated more than $100bn in frozen assets.
Five months on, however, and talk of Iran and the expected ‘gold rush’ of investment seems to have slowed or been kicked into the long grass by the emergence of many other global crises/events.
The ongoing migrant crisis and talk of the ‘Brexit’ dominate headlines in many parts of Europe; various geopolitical events continue to be waged in the Middle East; the US Presidential race ratchets up in North America; macroeconomic challenges in Latin America – and the rampant Zika virus – have so far taken the centre stage that the impending Rio 2016 Olympic Games might reasonably have expected to tread by now; while the still low prices of crude oil continue to affect industry the world over.
So, at the midpoint in 2016, where are we at with Iran’s new wave of growth?
Where are we now?
Let’s start with the latter of those headline-grabbers, the plunging oil prices.
Upon January’s confirmation of lifting sanctions, already low oil prices fell further, trending down below $28 per barrel amid fears that Iran’s bountiful supply into the global market would only compound current over-supply.
It was projected that up to half a million more barrels oil per day could be added to the market as a result, and it’s thought that Iran has been staunch in its hopes to raise production to levels seen before the imposition of the now-ended Western sanctions. A report last month from the International Energy Agency (IEA) confirmed that Iranian oil production in April was close to 3.6 million barrels per day, while oil exports reached two million barrels per day – a dramatic increase from the 1.4 million barrels per day seen only the month before (March). This figure is thought to have risen even further since, a far cry from the capped level of one million barrels per day under international sanctions.
The question is whether this has really had any negative impact on global markets. Iran would argue it has not and perhaps understandably, is apparently reluctant to commit to another freeze in output anytime soon, regardless of wider efforts to err on the side of caution for the greater good of market stability.
Oil prices have recovered from their January lows and have stabilised at around $50 per barrel, though largely due to global supply outages. Whether this gradual bounce-back will be sustained remains to be seen; Iran is reported to be keen to support OPEC’s efforts to bring stability to the market with ‘fair and logical prices’.
Another aspect of the country’s oil and gas sector to have flourished without the shackles of sanctions is its LNG trade. Iran has begun to ship excess natural gas supplies as LNG to Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa via ISO tank containers, and aims to develop its LNG sector considerably following January’s announcement as it seeks to grab a larger slice of the global LNG market.
Yet the real swell in Iran’s new wave of growth appears yet to be realised.
While oil production has soared and greater LNG export is underway, there appears to be little other reported progress in the tide of change. I understand from Dr. Fatemeh Didehvar –
an Iranian industrial gas professional – that there is stability in foreign currency and around $30bn in retrievable locked money has returned to the country. But there’s a clear ebb and flow and developments, with reports surfacing of late that suggest a sense of frustration creeping in where realising the opportunities is concerned.
So is it the case that the momentum is being lost?
Quiet on the Western front
Following the lifting of sanctions, the door is open to Non-American companies to invest not only in Iran’s oil and gas industry, but a number of other end-user markets too as Iran re-engages with the Western world at large.
Indeed, Dr. Didehvar emphasised at gasworld’s Middle East Africa Industrial Gas Conference in December that, “Iran is home to the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves. There is a huge opportunity for global energy companies, especially European firms.”
”Iran is home to the fourth-largest proven crude oil reserves and the second-largest natural gas reserves. There is a huge opportunity for global energy companies, especially European firms”
Just weeks ago reports in Iranian media cited a $1bn oil rig contract awarded to Russian firm Krasnye Barrikady. Closer to home, in the gases industry, The Linde Group has long been linked with involvement in Iranian LNG and petrochemicals projects alike, with some reports even suggesting that the company has offered to ‘help’ Iran complete its LNG projects, including LNG Pars and LNG Persian. Linde has remained resolute in declining to comment on such reports.
These are just two diverse examples of prospective European involvement in Iran’s gold rush. Yet, in many respects it has otherwise been relatively quiet on the Western front. Personally, I have seen few tangible reports of progression in Iran’s petrochemicals and steel sectors – markets that had also been held aloft as ripe for development.
Any inkling of momentum being lost would likely point to the same stumbling blocks identified last summer as crucial to realising Iran’s potential; Swift codes, banking systems, and the budget constraints of private companies in the short-term, and the need to produce more gas and infrastructure to connect to Europe in the medium term.
Banking problems are ongoing, Dr. Didehvar told me, with only ‘access of some Iranian banks to Swift and global electronic transactions’, creating murky business waters for most interested parties. Short-term obstacles widely expected to be conquered within 12-18 months are arguably dragging on.
Political uncertainty in the US is also seen by many as contributing to the ebb of this tide, with the Presidential race that has largely pushed stories of Iran’s new business boom to the backseat of Western media potentially set to have significant repercussions.
“Foreign investors will consider two aspects after the Iran nuclear deal: the US elected President; and the next Iranian Presidential election, which is now easy because a recent parliament election achieved more Reformist numbers,” Dr. Didehvar says.
Until then, perhaps we will have to wait to see the multi-billion dollar wave of regrowth truly build in Iran. It may be quieter than expected at the moment, but with projected economic growth of up to 5.5% in 2017, sanctions lifted and assets thawed, it will surely not be long before the tide is high for this particular business boom.