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Iran’s oil, Europe’s oil imports, many threats, upward prices

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Iranian President Ahmadinejad punches the air in front of a banner of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during rally to mark the anniversary of Islamic Revolution in Tehran. With its threat to block the Strait of Hormuz, Iran is responding to the United States' decision to impose sanctions on financial institutions that deal with Iran's central bank. Photo: Der Spiegel / Reuters

The concern about the multi-bloc confrontation with Iran (the Islamic Republic of, to use the official name) has continued from December 2011 into January 2012. Oil prices and petroleum products markets have been affected. There have been oft-repeated and serious concerns that there could be some armed confrontation, especially involving Israel and Iran. There has also been speculation that Iran’s government would block the Strait of Hormuz, through which about a third of all crude oil shipped worldwide passes. Some of these concerns have abated in the last week, but only partially.

Now, Der Spiegel has reported that although the European Union embargo on Iranian oil will only come into effect in six months, the leadership in Tehran wants to act first: Exports to Europe are set to be halted immediately. It is a move which could mean added difficulties for struggling economies in southern Europe. The Iranian government wants to present a bill to parliament this weekend calling for an immediate halt to oil deliveries to Europe. The move, with most reports citing the Iranian news agency Mehr, has come about in response to the EU agreement to impose sanctions against Iran, which were announced earlier this week.

The sanctions banned any new contracts for buying oil from Iran, but allowed existing deals to continue until July in order to give countries time to find other sources. But that process is now at risk after the latest move from Tehran, a step the Iranian government had already threatened. “If this bill is passed, the government will be forced to stop selling oil to Europe before the actual implementation of their sanctions,” said Emad Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian parliament’s energy commission, reportedly said. The bill is set to become law on Sunday.

An oil tanker is seen docked next to Iraq's vital al-Basra oil terminal, in Persian Gulf waters. Four decades after the 1973 oil shock, Iran and the West are once again embracing oil as a weapon. Tehran is threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz, while the industrialized countries are considering a boycott of Iranian oil. Photo: Der Spiegel / AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili

The EU sanctions allow for oil deliveries from Iran until July 1. Any pre-empting of this timescale by Tehran could prove problematic for countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, who would need to urgently find new suppliers. China, meanwhile, a major importer of Iranian oil, has also criticized the EU sanctions. The Xinhua news agency quoted the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday as saying: “To blindly pressure and impose sanctions on Iran are not constructive approaches.” Many members of the EU are now heavily dependent on Iranian oil. Some 500,000 barrels arrive in Europe every day from Iran, with southern European countries consuming most of it. Greece is the most exposed, receiving a third of all its oil imports from Iran, but Italy too depends on Iran for 13 percent of its oil needs. If this source were to dry up abruptly, the economic conditions in the two struggling countries could become even worse.

Iran holds around 137 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, or nearly 10 percent of the world total, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2011. Despite sitting on the world’s second largest reserves of natural gas, Iran’s growing appetite for its own gas, combined with tightening international sanctions that have throttled its fledgling liquefied natural gas (LNG) programme, have made it a net gas importer for most of the last decade. Natural gas accounts for 54 percent of Iran’s total domestic energy consumption, while most of the remainder of energy consumption is attributable to oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

Graphic: Der Spiegel / Reuters

The Gloria Center’s Barry Rubin has said that the claim of Israel being about to attack Iran repeatedly appears in the media (see his article, ‘Israel Isn’t Going to Attack Iran and Neither Will the United States’). “Some have criticized Israel for attacking Iran and turning the Middle East into a cauldron of turmoil (not as if the region needs any help in that department) despite the fact that it hasn’t even happened,” he said. “On the surface, of course, there is apparent evidence for such a thesis. Israel has talked about attacking Iran and, objectively, one can make a case for such an operation. Yet any serious consideration of this scenario—based on actual research and real analysis rather than what the uninformed assemble in their own heads—is this: It isn’t going to happen.”

Rubin said that the main leak from the Israeli government, by an ex-intelligence official who hates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has been that the Israeli government already decided not to attack Iran. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has publicly denied plans for an imminent attack as have other senior government official. “Israel, like other countries, should be subject to rational analysis. Articles being written by others are being spun as saying Israel is going to attack when that’s not what they are saying.”

So why are Israelis talking about a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Rubin has asked. Because that’s the only way Israel has to pressure Western countries to work harder on the issue, to increase sanction and diplomatic efforts, is his answer.

A satellite image of the Persian Gulf. About a third of all the crude oil shipped worldwide passes through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman. Photo: Der Spiegel / DPA / NASA / The Visible Earth

Bloomberg provided a round-up of Iran-related oil and prices news – oil declined a second day in New York as rising U.S. crude inventories countered data showing gasoline demand increased last week in the world’s largest oil consumer. Futures fell as much as 0.9 percent after dropping 0.6 percent yesterday. Crude stockpiles probably rose last week as imports rebounded, according to a Bloomberg News survey before an Energy Department report today. U.S. gasoline demand grew for a second week, MasterCard Inc. data showed yesterday. The European Union embargo on Iranian oil supplies will “bear bitter fruit,” Iran’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said this week.

Ria Novosti, the Russian news agtency, quoting a CNN report, said the United States will use all available options to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. “Let there be no doubt: America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal,” Obama said.

The New York Times reported that as the Obama administration and its European allies toughened economic sanctions against Iran on Monday — blocking its access to the world financial system and undermining its critical oil and gas industry — officials on both sides of the Atlantic acknowledge that their last-ditch effort has only a limited chance of persuading Tehran to abandon what the West fears is its pursuit of nuclear weapons. “That leaves open this critical question: And then what?”

Fox Business has reported that the International Monetary Fund warned on Wednesday that global crude prices could rise as much as 30 percent if Iran halts oil exports as a result of U.S. and European Union sanctions. If Iran halts exports to countries without offsets from other sources it would likely trigger an “initial” oil price jump of 20 to 30 percent, or about $20 to $30 a barrel, the IMF said in its first public comment on a possible Iranian oil supply disruption.

Graphic: Der Spiegel / Reuters

Impacts on refining in Europe was reported by Bloomberg – the European Union’s embargo on Iranian oil threatens to accelerate refinery closures in Europe, the head of Italy’s refiners’ lobby said. “Asian countries not applying the embargo could buy the Iranian oil at a discount and sell cheap refined products back to us,” Piero De Simone, general manager of Unione Petrolifera, said in an interview in Rome. “Italy already risks the closure of five refineries and at a European level we’re talking about 70 possible shut downs.”

Brinksmanship over Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz sparked a rally in oil prices at the end of last year, The National of UAE reported, with sabre-rattling by Iran and the US sending the price of Brent crude futures to highs of US$111.11 per barrel. Saudi Arabia looks set to benefit from sanctions against Iran as the kingdom is one of the few oil producers with capacity to make up any shortfall they will cause. Meanwhile India’s oil minister said Wednesday the energy-hungry nation was continuing to import oil from Iran and was not bound by new sanctions imposed by the European Union.

Reuters provided a factbox about Iran’s oil exports as OPEC’s second largest producer. Iran sells large volumes of oil to China, India, South Korea, Japan and Italy. But Greece, Turkey, South Africa and Sri Lanka rely most heavily on Iranian oil as a percentage of imports. Sri Lanka imported 39,000 bpd in the first half of the year, IEA data shows. It is completely reliant on Iranian oil.

EU figures show imports of Iranian crude were up more than 7% in the third quarter of 2011 compared to the second quarter. The EU says it imported about 700,000 bpd of Iranian crude oil in the third quarter of 2011, compared to about 655,000 bpd in the second quarter.

The European Union agreed on Jan. 23 to ban Iranian oil imports, but the embargo will not be fully implemented until July 1, to avoid harming economies to whom Iran has been a major supplier. The EU move follows new financial sanctions signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 31, which aim to make it difficult for countries to buy Iranian oil in an attempt to discourage Tehran’s nuclear programme.

Iran produces about 3.5 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude with another 500,000 bpd of condensate – light hydrocarbon liquids. Iran exports about 2.6 million bpd, of which about 50,000 bpd is refined products, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates. The top 10 buyers of Iranian crude last year were as follows:

An Iranian oil technician makes his way at the oil separator facilities in Azadegan oil field, near Ahvaz, Iran. Photo: Der Spiegel / AP Photo/Vahid Salemi

Country – Imports (bpd) – % Imports
1. China – 543,000 – 10
2. India – 341,000 – 11
3. Japan – 251,000 – 5.9
4. Italy – 204,000 – 13.2
5. South Korea – 239,000 – 7.4
6. Turkey – 217,000 – 30.6
7. Spain – 170,000 – 16.2
8. Greece – 158,000 – 53.1
9. S.Africa – 98,000 – 25
10.France – 75,000 – 6.0

[Figures for EU countries are from the bloc's Eurostat office and are for the third quarter. Figures for other OECD countries are from the IEA and for the second quarter. Figures for China, India and South Africa are for the first half of 2011 from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).]

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