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April 15, 2021, 3:26 p.m. EDT

Why oil traders should keep an eye on Iran even as nuclear talks look unproductive

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Myra P. Saefong

The U.S. and other world powers haven’t made much progress in reaching a new nuclear deal with Iran, but with data showing the nation’s crude oil production at a nearly two year high, traders can’t afford to ignore the amount Iran can potentially add to global supplies.

“Iran’s export capacity is approximately 2 million barrels per day, and it appears that it is already skirting the sanctions” by selling oil under the radar to Chinese buyers, said Manish Raj, chief financial officer at Velandera Energy. He believes that an additional 1 million barrels per day of Iranian supplies are ready to hit the market as soon as the sanctions imposed by former U.S. President Trump are lifted.

In a monthly report issued this week, the International Energy Agency said that despite U.S. sanctions, Iran has been “opening up the taps since late last year,” with its crude supply reaching 2.3 million barrels per day in March, which is the highest in nearly two years.

The IEA said shipments of Iranian oil, including crude and condensates, had slowed to a “mere trickle” from 2.5 million barrels a day after the former Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2018 and imposed sanctions instead.

“China, however, never completely stopped its purchases,” the agency said, noting that Iran’s estimated oil sales to China in the fourth quarter of 2020 were at 360,000 barrels a day, up from an average 150,000 barrels per day shipped in the first nine months of last year. In March of this year, exports to China were estimated at 600,000 barrels a day, it said.

And the “hefty purchases appear to be continuing” as Washington and Tehran restarted indirect talks in early April to restore the 2015 JCPOA, the IEA said.

Read: What the Iran nuclear talks mean for oil prices

Discussions regarding the deal, which aimed to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, were held on Thursday in Vienna. A tweet from Mikhail Ulyanov , Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said the “general impression is positive” following Thursday’s joint commission meeting of the JCPOA.

The IEA said in its report that “if negotiations succeed and sanctions are eased, up to 1.5 [million barrels a day] of additional Iranian crude could return to world markets in relatively short order.”

The discussions, however, have been complicated by Iran’s decision earlier this week to enrich uranium at 60% purity following a recent attack on its Natanz nuclear site , which it blamed on Israel. That brings Iran closer to the 90% purity required for weapons-grade material.

“If Iran continues to hold its fire in the face of mysterious attacks on critical infrastructure and personnel, we still believe that the chances are good that the nuclear accord can be revived and sanctions lifted,” analysts at RBC Capital Markets wrote in a research note dated Wednesday.

The next two weeks will be “pivotal” for the near term fate of the Iranian nuclear agreement, they said, as the window for reviving the deal is closing with the Iranian election season fast approaching. The nation will hold a presidential election in June.

If the discussions fall apart, “there could be some disappointment that might have a marginal impact on the oil market, though it doesn’t seem likely to take much off the market in terms of current Iranian exports,” said Marshall Steeves, energy markets analyst at IHS Markit.

“Rather, the question is whether renewed talks might lead to an increase in exports at some point this year,” he told MarketWatch. “We haven’t really priced in a significant increase at this point, and I think most are taking a wait and see approach.”

Oil prices climbed on Thursday, with June Brent crude up 36 cents, or 0.5%, to settle at $66.94 a barrel on ICE Futures Europe. May West Texas Intermediate crude /zigman2/quotes/211629951/delayed CL.1 +2.65% finished at $63.46 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, up 31 cents, or 0.5%. Both crude benchmarks settled at their highest since March 17, according to Dow Jones Market Data.

Although the prospect seems to “be a ways off for now,” a release of sanctions could “open the door” to an additional 1 million barrels per day in exports, said Steeves.

Unless others within the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries make up for that increase, “it could pressure prices,” he said. Then again, if demand is accelerating at that time, “it could be absorbed if the rate of demand growth exceeds the additional supply growth.”

/zigman2/quotes/211629951/delayed
US : U.S.: Nymex
$ 65.51
+1.69 +2.65%
Volume: 356,176
May 14, 2021 4:59p
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About Myra Saefong

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Myra P. Saefong is on the markets team in San Francisco. She has covered the commodities sector for MarketWatch for more than 10 years. She has spent the...

Myra P. Saefong is on the markets team in San Francisco. She has covered the commodities sector for MarketWatch for more than 10 years. She has spent the bulk of her years at the company writing the daily Futures Movers and Metals Stocks columns and has been writing the weekly Commodities Corner column since 2005. Myra has been with MarketWatch since 1998 and holds a master’s degree in English literature.

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