With Natural Gas Byproduct, Iran Sidesteps Sanctions
By CLIFFORD KRAUSSAUG. 12, 2014
Iran is finding a way around Western sanctions to export increasing amounts of an ultralight oil to China and other Asian markets, expanding the value of its trade by potentially billions of dollars a year.
The exports come during a slight thaw in Iran’s relations with the West as negotiations over its nuclear program continue, and energy experts say it is counting on the United States and Europe to tolerate an increasing export stream.
According to Iranian customs data, the country in recent months has exported 525,000 barrels a day of the ultralight oil, known as condensates, over two times more than ...view middle of the document...
But under the sanctions, they are fully covered only when they come out of an oil field, and not when produced from a natural gas field, even though they are routinely mixed with heavier grades of oil later for making fuels.
Administration officials said that the countries that had waivers to continue importing some Iranian oil — China, India, South Korea, Turkey, Taiwan and Japan — were not technically prohibited from buying the gas condensates and were not breaking the letter of the agreements with Washington.
The increase in condensate exports compensates for a small part of Iran’s lost oil revenues. According to OPEC estimates, the value of Iranian oil exports in 2013 had plunged to $62 billion, down from $102 billion in 2012 and $115 billion in 2011.
Still, there has been some slippage. The Energy Department reported that from January to May, Iranian oil and condensates exports were 300,000 barrels a day higher than the 2013 average, with China and India accounting for most of the increase. Other slippage comes from sales to Syria, a close ally of Iran.
“They found a loophole that buyers can use,” said Greg Priddy, director of global energy at the Eurasia Group, a consultant firm. But he added that despite the new condensates sales, “sanctions are not melting away.”
The Chinese Embassy and Iranian Interests Section in Washington did not respond to email requests for comment on the increased sales.
Under the sanctions, crude oil exports to most nations are now banned. As for natural gas, Iran was banned from exporting it to the European Union in late 2012, but not to Asian markets — providing an opening for the gas condensates sales.
While the added exports are giving the Iranians a taste of the economic benefits of a diplomatic rapprochement, administration officials note that the benefits of the condensates sales are still limited by the sanctions on Iran’s central bank. Under those sanctions, the money from the sales of gas, like oil, cannot be repatriated and must stay in the country that buys the Iranian product. That means the proceeds can be used to buy products in China or India, but not to support Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran is already owed billions of dollars in oil payments because the value of the goods it wishes to buy does not always equal the value of the oil it sells.
“What is actually in peril are the assets of the Central Bank of Iran wherever they come from,” said Richard Nephew, the State Department’s deputy coordinator for sanctions policy.
Nevertheless, experts say the increased exports are likely to spur added tensions between the Obama administration and congressional critics who say it is not...