Iran piles pressure on US with China oil talks

Tehran officials are in Beijing this week to seek more oil sales, in a move that could reduce Iran's vulnerability to Western sanctions and pressure the U.S. to sign off on a deal to lift restrictions on Iranian oil exports.

Representatives of the state-run National Iranian Oil Company are meeting with Chinese oil importer Sinopec and state-run oil trader Zhuhai ZhenRong for talks, officials told Reuters this week.

A view of a petrochemical complex in Assaluyeh on Iran's Persian Gulf coast.
Morteza Nikoubazl | Reuters
A view of a petrochemical complex in Assaluyeh on Iran's Persian Gulf coast.

This came after Iran and the "P5+1" countries—the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany—last week agreed to a framework for a deal that would see international sanctions on Tehran lifted in exchange for cuts to is nuclear program.

"With negotiations going on, this (talks between Beijing and Tehran) will be presented as an investigatory discussion—but one that puts pressure on (U.S. President Barack) Obama to make a deal," Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland in the U.S. told CNBC.

The sanctions were first imposed on Iran at the end of 2011, due to fears that its uranium enrichment program was aimed at building a nuclear weapon. The measures targeted Iran's energy sector—a highly significant part of its economy—limiting exports, preventing large-scale investment and hampering its ability to tap investment.

As a result, Iran suffered a 1 million barrel per day drop in oil exports in 2012 compared with the previous year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

"I think that Iran is laying the groundwork for increased oil sales to China once the sanctions are lifted," Andy Lipow of Lipow Oil Associates in Houston told CNBC on Tuesday.

Iran Nuclear program
Atta Kenare | AFP | Getty Images

Historically, Iran was the third-largest exporter to China, but the country reduced its imports from Iran in 2012 in order to maintain diplomatic ties with the U.S. and Europe following the imposition of sanctions.

China is the world's second-largest oil consumer behind the U.S. and accounts for around one-third of the world's oil consumption growth, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, making it a highly attractive market for the Iranians.

"It is not clear whether Iran is going (to look) East or West, but China provides it with a well-qualified customer and one possibly beyond the reach of any U.S. sanctions," said Morici.

"It's a way of diversifying its market—Iran doesn't want to be entirely dependent on European markets and it will be hard to penetrate the U.S. market," he added.

Despite the sanctions, China upped its imports from Iran in 2014, according to the EIA, buying for strategic reserves.

"China has been one of Iran's biggest customers for crude oil, even when they were breaching sanctions by selling more than the 1m b/d quota," Malcolm Graham-Wood of Hydrocarbon Capital told CNBC.

"China will buy from anyone and if the price is right it doesn't matter! ... Which means that they will probably cut a deal."

An oil tanker is seen off the port of Bandar Abbas, southern Iran.
Atta Kenare | AFP | Getty Images
An oil tanker is seen off the port of Bandar Abbas, southern Iran.

Consultants such as Lipow say the West may start scaling back sanctions by the middle of this year, despite opposition from leaders like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as more hawkish members of both the U.S. Republican party and U.S. President Barack Obama's Democrat party.

"The agreement last week with Iran was not solely with the United States, but it was with the P5+1, and clearly some members of that group believe that an agreement will be signed by the end of June, sanctions will be eased and economic ties with Iran will be expanded," Lipow told CNBC.

Iran's oil minister has met with executives from several of the European oil majors at recent meetings of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), including Italy's Eni and Royal Dutch Shell, according to Reuters.

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Morici said that once China reached an agreement with Iran, then Germany (the "+1" country in the P5+1) would likely follow suit, with Europe keen to be on good terms with Beijing.

"Once the Chinese crack, Germany will be in there, because after all there is money there," he said.

An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz.
AFP/Stringer | AFP | Getty Images
An International Atomic Energy Agency inspector at Iran's nuclear power plant in Natanz.

Morici forecast the emergence of a "loose alliance among the anti-Western states of Iran, Russia and China."

"I see Iran emerging as a third partner in a new axis," he told CNBC.

"I expect responses to be muted because the Europeans are concerned about upsetting the Chinese—we saw this with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

"This will create pressure on the Americans, giving the Chinese silent glee. One of their basic pillars is to weaken American power, to reduce the grip of American hegemony."

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Signs of Tehran's strong relationship with Beijing came late on Tuesday, when Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reported that Iran had been accepted as a founding member of the China-led AIIB. The bank is viewed as a potential rival to U.S.-dominated supranational bodies like World Bank and the U.S. has express misgivings, officially because of concerns about governance and environmental and societal safeguards.

Despite this, several European countries have signed up, including the U.K, Germany, France and Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

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"Over half of Iran's current crude oil and condensate exports are to China and most of Iran's commodity chemicals and materials companies already have marketing offices in China. So there is already a substantial trading relationship, within the restrictions of the current sanctions regime," Hasnain Malik, frontier markets equity strategist at Exotix Partners in Dubai, told CNBC.

"This trip is likely, in part, an attempt to build on that and perhaps pave the way for payment in hard currency should the P5+1 framework agreement transition into lasting relief from those sanctions."