Iran’s Oil Industry Presents Challenges for Rouhani

by Robin Mills

Hassan Rouhani is known as a man who sprays air-freshener in the room before a meeting. When it comes to Iran’s oil industry, Iran’s fastidious president-elect may have a great deal of spring-cleaning to do.

Much outside attention has been paid to the impact of sanctions on Iran and global oil markets. There has been less discussion of what Iranian policymakers should be doing with their oil, and what effect different policies would have within the country. Turning around the petroleum sector is crucial to Iran’s economy, and in turn, to the success of the centrist-reformist current that the pragmatic Mr. Rouhani is now representing.

During the phase of post-war reconstruction under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, oil production rose by more than 3 percent annually and grew by more than 1 percent per year under Mohammad Khatami as major foreign investment flowed in from European, Russian and Asian companies. In 1995, Bill Clinton vetoed a contract for US oil company Conoco to develop the offshore Sirri fields, which allowed France’s Total to step in. The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) as well as domestic engineering and service companies also significantly improved their technical capabilities.

In contrast, the economic consequences of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were oddly similar to those of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela — the replacement of skilled oil technocrats by less qualified allies, leading to stagnant output. Two giant oil field discoveries of the early 2000s, Azadegan and Yadavaran on the Iraqi border, have barely been developed.

Driven by South Pars, the world’s largest field — shared with Qatar — natural gas production continued to rise impressively under Ahmadinejad, albeit at a slower rate than with his predecessor. But with lines being drawn all over the map like spaghetti, minimal progress was made on gas export plans — to Turkey and Europe; Pakistan and India; the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman — and as liquefied natural gas. The country that, according to British Petroleum, now has the world’s largest reserves, is barely a net exporter of gas.

Development of the oil sector was, of course, hampered by increasingly tight sanctions. Western companies essentially suspended new activities by 2008, while Chinese and Russian firms did no more than keep a foot in the door. But bigger barriers — already apparent during Khatami’s second term — were unattractive contract terms, interminable negotiation periods and decision-making paralysis.

Three of Ahmadinejad’s nominees for oil minister were rejected by the Majlis in 2005; in 2011 he attempted to act as his own oil minister, again ruled out by parliament. As Kevan Harris has documented, from 2006, Ahmadinejad accelerated a process already underway since the 1990s — the pseudo-privatisation of a wide range of state-controlled entities, including oil development and engineering companies and petrochemical plants. In a process reminiscent of the “nomenklatura capitalism” of post-Soviet Russia, many of these companies have fallen under the control of regime insiders and government bureaucrats.

High and rising oil prices permitted complacency as Iran received more oil revenues than in the entire previous century of production during Ahmadinejad’s two terms as president. An increasingly overvalued exchange rate made domestic industry uncompetitive and attracted a flood of cheap imports in a vain attempt to keep down inflation sent soaring by excess liquidity. In a curious reversal of monetary orthodoxy, Ahmadinejad insisted that interest rates not exceed the inflation rate.

The main positive achievement of Ahmadinejad’s administration was reforming Iran’s ruinous energy subsidy scheme, which was replaced by direct cash payments to families. The plan was conceptually sound and surprisingly well-executed; consumption fell and the basic income provided made a substantial difference for poorer Iranians. But the scheme stalled as a result of further infighting between the Majlis and president, the sanctions-induced collapse in the rial, severe inflation and the failure to compensate affected businesses.

The administration did not anticipate how successful the US would be, from early 2012 onwards, in cajoling both allies and rivals to eliminate or cut oil purchases from Iran, as well as targeting insurance, shipping, financial transactions and exports of other Iranian products. Iran’s oil sales fell by a million barrels per day, while increased output from Saudi Arabia and from the US itself prevented global prices from rising too far.

The path of Iran’s oil industry under Dr. Rouhani will depend on progress made in nuclear negotiations and the easing of sanctions, as well as his administration’s domestic policy choices. A military conflict with the US and/or Israel would have highly unpredictable but damaging effects on Iran’s oil industry and possibly those of its neighbours.

If the current sanctions regime remains in place, Iran’s new administration will have to do its best to survive on a severely diminished income. As the Mossadegh government did in the early 1950s under somewhat similar circumstances, it can reorient the economy further towards domestic production and consumption, eliminating the luxury imports that boomed over the past decade. Better management and tackling corruption would reduce the social impacts and inequality — at the potential cost of harming some leading regime figures.

Bringing back Iran’s capable technocrats — and some of its talented diaspora, with more relaxed social conditions, as under Khatami — would keep oil production steady. Two candidates helped manage Rouhani’s campaign – former deputy oil minister Akbar Torkan and former refining and petrochemical chief Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh. Discounts, loopholes and disguised shipments can maintain exports, even at a reduced level. Over time, the enforcement of the sanctions can be eroded.

But, with the demand for OPEC oil set to be stagnant or falling over this decade, the prospect of lower oil prices, and Iraq’s taking an increasing share of the pie, the path ahead could be hazardous. Iran’s purported ally Russia has no interest in encouraging a competing oil and gas exporter. Given the Islamic Republic’s paranoid (if not unjustified) suspicion of the West, it would be ironic if it ended up yet more dependent on the Kremlin and China.

In the event of a breakthrough on the nuclear issue, and a lifting of most oil-related sanctions, the stage would be set for a pragmatic, Rafsanjani-style reconstruction. If the shutdown could be managed correctly, oil production could bounce back to near pre-2012 levels quite quickly.

But fully realising Iran’s petroleum potential requires foreign investment and expertise, ideally including Western companies. This will have to be under better contractual terms than the “buybacks” offered in the early 2000s that provoked so much nationalist debate within Iran.

Giving international companies a long-term stake in fields can be done with modern contracts that still provide Iran with full sovereignty and control over its industry. This would achieve two objectives. First, it would ensure efficient operations and maximum recovery from the country’s mature fields while encouraging technology transfer. Second, it would give momentum to the removal of remaining sanctions and create a barrier against their reinstatement.

In the same way, gas exports — to the GCC, Turkey and Pakistan — would anchor Iran more tightly within the regional economy and make it indispensable to its neighbours. The window for major exports to Europe has probably closed, with Azeri and Iraqi Kurdish gas set to flow. But Iran could still resurrect its liquefied natural gas plans, where it has fallen infinitely behind Qatar.

Domestically, Iran’s subsidy reform needs to be revived — more propitious when the economy is growing and government finances are increasing. The web of pseudo-privatisation also needs to be untangled and replaced by a balance of true private investment and commercially focused state enterprise.

The sine qua non is a resolution to the nuclear issue and an end to the major sanctions. A whole-hearted pursuit of these policies would amount to a revolution in Iran’s energy affairs — likely to provoke major domestic opposition and run into significant international hurdles. But even a pragmatic, technocratic house-cleaning of Iran’s oil sector would help set the economy on a path to recovery and give hope for the success of Dr. Rouhani’s tenure.

— Photo Credit: Mehdi Ghasemi

Robin Mills

Robin, Head of Consulting at Manaar Energy (Dubai), is an expert on Middle East energy strategy and economics. He is the author of two books, The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon, columnist on energy and environmental issues at The National, and comments widely on energy issues in the media, including the Financial Times, Foreign Policy, Atlantic, CNN, BBC, Bloomberg and others. He worked for a decade for Shell, concentrating on new business development in the Middle East, followed by six years with Dubai Holding and the Emirates National Oil Company. He is Advisor to the Berkeley Program on Middle East Entrepreneurship and Development, a member of the International Association for Energy Economics (IAEE) and the Association of International PetroleumNegotiators (AIPN), and Non-Resident Scholar at the Institute for Near-East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA). He holds a first-class degree in Geology from the University of Cambridge, and speaks five languages including Arabic and Farsi.