Oil buyers must cut all Iranian crude imports by November, State Dept says

  • Companies that buy Iranian crude oil must completely cut those exports by the start of November, a senior State Department official told CNBC.
  • That indicates the Trump administration will not allow countries to gradually phase out Iranian crude exports over many months, as the Obama White House allowed.
  • Oil prices spiked following the announcement, which comes at a time when oil markets are finely balanced and crude futures have recently hit 3½-year highs.

Companies that buy Iranian crude oil must completely cut those exports by the start of November or else they will face powerful U.S. sanctions, a senior State Department official told reporters on Tuesday.

The State Department has conveyed that message to European diplomats in recent talks, the official said. The Trump administration has not yet held talks with China, India or Turkey about their purchases of Iranian crude, but it intends to pressure them to entirely cut their imports under threat of sanctions, the official added.

Oil prices spiked following the announcement, which indicates that President Donald Trump will not follow the Obama administration model of allowing countries to gradually phase out Iranian crude exports over many months. The hardline approach comes at a time when oil markets are finely balanced and crude prices have recently hit 3½-year highs.

Iran, OPEC's third biggest oil producer, exports more than 2 million barrels a day. OPEC and other oil producers including Russia agreed last week to ease production caps that have been in place for 18 months in order to prevent prices from spiking as Venezuela's output continues to sink and the U.S. sanctions on Iran's exports loom.

President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Iran nuclear deal in May to pursue a maximum pressure campaign. At the time, his administration gave foreign companies either 90 or 180 days to wind down their business with Iranian counterparts, depending on the type of commercial activity.

A crucial question was whether the Trump administration would follow the model President Barack Obama put in place. His administration asked buyers to cut their imports of Iranian crude by 20 percent every 180 days when it ramped up its pressure campaign against Iran.

If Trump followed the same model, that could have pushed the impact into the first half of 2019, according to RBC Capital Markets. But the State Department confirmed on Tuesday that Iranian crude buyers should be reducing purchases now, with the goal of zeroing out their purchases by Nov. 4, the 180-day mark from Trump's nuclear deal pullout and the renewal of U.S. sanctions.

"That is why we've offered this window since May 8, as sort of a drawdown period," the senior State Department official said.

The United States was able to quickly cut Iran's shipments under Obama, largely because it had the support of its European allies. European countries imposed their own sanctions on Iranian crude exports, which wiped out the Continent's purchases in about six months.

In contrast, Britain, France, Germany and the wider European Union have voiced strong opposition to Trump's pullout and put in place measures designed to protect their companies from so-called secondary sanctions. Those secondary sanctions punish companies that engaged in sanctioned business with Iranian entities, threatening to lock them out of the massive U.S. market and isolate them from the international financial system.

The State Department official said diplomats have been in Europe garnering support for the U.S. position among the EU3, isolating streams of Iranian funding and highlighting "the totality of Iran's malign behavior across the region."

"On the diplomatic front, we have had secondary sanctions in place in Iran since 1996," the official said. "These are discussions we are extremely used to having. We have a lot of diplomatic muscle memory" for urging partners to cut Iranian oil purchases.

To be sure, the United States has had secondary sanctions on the book for more than 20 years, but Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush chose not to enforce them for fear of sparking a diplomatic crisis and trade war with Europe.

The 2015 Iran nuclear deal lifted sanctions on Iran in exchanged for its leaders in Tehran accepting limits on its nuclear program and allowing inspectors into its atomic facilities. The Trump administration left the deal after failing to reach an agreement with European partners over expanding the conditions to include limiting Iran's ballistic missile program, addressing its role in Middle East conflicts and extending key parts of the accord that begin to expire in 2025.

The administration does not expect to grant any waivers to companies that purchase Iranian oil or invest in its energy industry, the official said.