EU embargo of Russian oil spells trouble for Iran in Chinese market (Report)

01 June, 2022
Source: Bourse & Bazaar

European Union leaders have agreed on a landmark embargo of Russian oil that will seek to slash imports by90% by the end of the year. The embargo represents a major intensification of European sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. 

For most oil producers, the embargo will be a boon. While the measures were widely expected and therefore may have been partly priced-in by traders, oil price jumped on the news. Saudi Arabia, for one, is already planning how it will spend the windfall enabled by high oil prices.

But for Iran, and to a lesser extent Venezuela, the embargo of Russian oil is bad news. For countries whose oil exports are subject to U.S. or EU sanctions, China is the buyer of last resort. For several years, China has been the sole country to continue significant purchases Iranian and Venezuelan crude oil, ignoring the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions. These imports have been an important contributor to Iran’s economic resilience under sanctions. However, this is not because revenues are flowing back to Iran. The revenues accruing in China are being used to sustain Iran’s imports of crucial intermediate goods for the country’s manufacturing base.

Iran has also benefited from increased financial resources in the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, two countries which are serving to intermediate Chinese imports of Iranian oil. Most Iranian oil arriving in China is declared as an import from the UAE or Malaysia. As it stands, Iran is consistently exporting more than 1 million barrels per day of crude oil to China.

Russia’s rise as a major energy exporter to China corresponds to the period in which Iranian oil was taken off the market due to the impacts of US, EU, and UN sanctions programmes—Iran’s demise as an oil exporter helped open the door for Russian exports. 

The new EU embargo on Russian oil will intensify competition between Russia and Iran in China’s oil market. Russian suppliers are already offering buyers a 30 percent discount on benchmark prices, a much steeper discount than Iran has offered Chinese buyers in recent years. Russia and Iran will be competing for the business of the limited number of Chinese refiners willing to process “sanctioned” oil. 

Already, some Chinese “teapot” refiners are replacing Iranian oil with Russian oil because of the attractive discount on offer. So far, customs data does not reflect a dramatic swing away from Iranian imports. But it is early days and the embargo will dramatically change incentives. According to the IEA, around “60% of Russia’s oil exports go to OECD Europe, and another 20% go to China.”

While some customers, such as India, might import the Russian barrels that would have otherwise gone to Europe, political and economic realities will require Russia to push more oil into the Chinese market. 

Looking to Chinese customs data for April, Russia’s ability to squeeze Iran becomes clear. It is clearly a more important supplier of crude oil to China. While logistical bottlenecks might prevent an immediate jump in Chinese purchases, all of the Russian barrels already flowing to China are newly subject to discounts—China can insist on lower prices now that the EU embargo is in place. This in turn creates pressure for Iran to match Russian discounts or risk losing market share. 

While it is possible that the further pressure on global supply might push oil prices even higher, minimizing the loss of revenue for Iran even as Chinese imports fall, in the medium terms, Russia has the means to bully Iran due to its lower fiscal breakeven price and lower production costs. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vladimir Putin boasted that Russia could withstand oil prices of as low as $25 dollars per barrel for as long as a decade. Iran’s oil sector, already weakened by a decade of sanctions, does not have the same ability to endure low prices. In short, Russia can afford to undercut Iran. 

Plus, for whatever period that Russian oil is not subject to US secondary sanctions, Chinese tankers and refiners may prefer to handle Russian crude, due to the lower risk of enforcement action.

Iran has a couple of options here. First, it could try and negotiate an arrangement with Russia, agreeing not to engage in a race to the bottom when it comes to pricing their sanctioned barrels for China. Iran might even be able to play a role as an intermediary in Russian energy exports to China, importing refined products across the Caspian and exporting crude oil to China as part of a swap arrangement. But this kind of cooperation is highly unlikely given the track record of Russia-Iran relations and the fact that Russia sees Iran as the junior partner in the relationship.  

The second option would be for Iran to try and get itself out of this predicament by taking decisive steps to restore the nuclear deal.

Doing so would see the rollback of U.S. secondary sanctions on Iranian oil and enable the resumption of exports to European buyers precisely when those buyers need it most. Earlier this month, EU High Representative Josep Borrell commented on the heightened value of the nuclear deal for Europe in the wake of the Russia crisis. He told the Financial Times that “Europeans will be very much beneficiaries from this deal” as the “the situation has changed now.” He added that “it would be very much interesting for us to have another [crude] supplier.” 

Earlier this week, Iranian officials boasted that oil revenues were up 60 percent year-on-year owing to the high oil prices. But the situation has changed now. As the EU moves forward with its historic embargo, Iran’s oil revenues are suddenly in Russian crosshairs.

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