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Iran Sanctions and the Doomsday Scenario

Politics / Iran Oct 02, 2009 - 03:22 AM GMT

By: John_Mauldin


Best Financial Markets Analysis ArticleRecently I had a discussion with a colleague about university athletes. I was previously unaware that NCAA colleges set up guidance programs that develop the well-roundedness of student athletes. 'Life coaches' ensure that these individuals balance their rigorous athletic commitments with personal and academic accomplishments. I'm not judging your ability to run a mile or catch a football, but well-roundedness is an element to being successful - whatever your area may be.

To be a solid investor, it's important to consider a variety of markets, and you must be well-informed in a myriad of sectors. This is where having the best information comes in, and one of the better places for intelligence is STRATFOR. They offer a straightforward recipe of news about global affairs - causes, outcomes and what to expect next based on a rational, time-tested methodology.

I'm including a STRATFOR report that discusses the possibility of gasoline import sanctions against Iran. It's an absolute must-read for anyone interested in energy, foreign relations, Russia, the Middle East, etc. I'd encourage you to sign up for their free weekly reports here, so you aren't limited to what I send you on occasion. Begin (or continue) your journey to well-roundedness... Now, get to the line and practice your free throws.

John Mauldin
Editor, Outside the Box

Iran Sanctions (Special Series), Part 3: Preparing for the Worst


Iran has long been preparing itself for U.S.-led sanctions against gasoline imports and is confident in its ability to circumvent them. But even if the sanctions did get Iran's attention, they would not necessarily bring it to the negotiating table. Iran takes resistance very seriously, and while extolling the virtues of self-sacrifice it could close the Strait of Hormuz, which would wreak havoc on the global economy.

Editor's Note: This is part three of a three-part series on what sanctions against Iran could mean for Iran, U.S.-Russian relations, Israel and the global economy.

As the Iranian regime continued apace with its nuclear program, it understood that it was only a matter of time before the West would aim for its gasoline imports, a potential Achilles' heel for Iran. Although Iran may be one of the world's top-five crude-oil producers and exporters, its rogue reputation isn't exactly good for business. The Iranian energy industry has been sagging under the weight of sanctions for decades as the foreign energy majors with the technical skill Iran so badly needs wait for the geopolitical storm clouds to clear before tapping the country's vast energy reserves.

To contain domestic political dissent, the Iranian regime has heavily subsidized the population's energy needs. The drawback to such a policy is that ridiculously cheap gasoline prices (gasoline in Iran costs around 9 cents per liter) tend to fuel rapid consumption and rampant smuggling. As Iran's population continued to grow, so did its appetite for gasoline, and the regime has now reached a point where it simply cannot keep up with domestic demand without importing at least one-third of its fuel.

So, while Iran's Arab rivals, such as energy heavyweight Saudi Arabia, profited immensely from record-high crude prices in 2008, the Iranian regime was still struggling to balance its accounts. Then came the global economic collapse, which sliced the country's oil revenues in half. And given the sponsorship by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of militant and political proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's repeated raids on the country's rainy-day oil funds for his political campaigning, and funding for the Iranian nuclear program, Tehran does not have much cash to spare.

Unreliable Allies

Iran is not oblivious to its gasoline vulnerabilities, but it also isn't left without options should Washington become more aggressive with its sanctions campaign. As discussed in detail in part two of this series, Russia — for its own strategic reasons — has developed a contingency plan, most likely involving Russia's former Soviet surrogate, Turkmenistan, to cover the gasoline gap should Iran start experiencing shortfalls. The Russians are certainly not planning to do this out of the goodness of their hearts and sincere loyalty to their allies in Tehran. On the contrary, sabotaging Washington's sanctions regime against Tehran is yet another way Moscow can turn the screws on the United States if the Obama administration refuses to take seriously the Kremlin's demand that the West respect its influence in the former Soviet sphere. Since the Obama administration backed down recently from its Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) plans in Central Europe, there could be more room for Russia and the United States to engage in serious negotiations. That said, there is no guarantee that Washington would be willing to pay the price of Russian hegemony in Eurasia in return for Russia's cooperation on Iran, and Moscow will drive a hard bargain before it even thinks about sacrificing its leverage with Iran.

Iran could certainly use Russia's help in maintaining its gasoline supply, but Tehran is also quite wary of becoming that much more dependent on Moscow's good graces for its energy security. Russia and Iran have quite a tumultuous history (the Soviets briefly occupied Iran during World War II), and the Iranian leadership is fearful of being abandoned by Russia should Moscow reach some sort of compromise with Washington.

Iran's other energy-producing ally hostile to the United States is Venezuela, which recently announced it would come to Iran's aid in the event of sanctions and supply its Persian friends with 20,000 barrels per day (bpd) of gasoline starting in October for an $800 million annual fee. Beneath the revolutionary rhetoric of oppressed regimes sticking it to their imperialist foes, this Venezuelan-Iranian energy deal is filled with holes. For starters, Venezuela — much like Iran — is facing serious refining problems due to mismanagement and a severe drop in foreign investment. Also like Iran, Venezuela's populist regime heavily subsidizes its constituents (gasoline in Venezuela is even cheaper than in Iran at 4 cents per liter), sending consumption soaring over the past four years. While Venezuela is currently refining around 420,000 bpd, it still needs to import gasoline to help meet domestic demand.

Caracas could always go through a third party to supply gasoline to Iran from a source closer to the Persian Gulf, but finding a willing supplier could prove difficult and costly when insurance premiums and political risks are taken into account. Moreover, should push come to shove, Washington has substantial leverage over the Venezuelan regime given the abundance of assets that Citgo, the refining unit of Venezuelan state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela, has spread throughout the United States. The United States also is the largest recipient of Venezuela's crude exports and one of the few markets in the world with the technological capabilities to process Venezuela's heavy crude, leaving Venezuela without much of a viable alternative market.

Iran has already turned to China to help backfill its gasoline supply. Latest estimates show that starting in September, China began to directly supply up to one-third of Iran's total gasoline imports. Until now, Chinese involvement in the gasoline trade had mostly been limited to shipping companies. In the run-up to the Oct. 1 talks, China now has the extra incentive to poke the United States and profit from these gasoline shipments to Iran. After having boosted its refining capacity this year, China has surplus gasoline to sell on the international market. In August alone China exported 140,000 barrels of gasoline per day. Like Malaysia's Petronas, which began supplying Iran with gasoline in August, China sees an opportunity to profit off of Iran's gasoline trade at a time when political tensions are rising and major energy firms, such as BP, Reliance and Total, have already stopped or are cutting back their shipments to Iran. But Iran may not be able to rely on Chinese aid over the long term.

China currently is in a heated trade spat with Washington over a recent U.S. tariff on Chinese tire imports and could push back against Washington even further by flouting the threatened sanctions regime. However, this is a decision with major strings attached. Washington still has a great deal of leverage over Beijing in the form of Section 421, a U.S. law that was incorporated into China's accession agreement with the World Trade Organization in 2001 and allows the United States to legally impose tariffs on nearly any Chinese export until 2013. Now that Obama has put Section 421 to use in restricting tire imports, the Chinese have to think twice before making any moves that could compel Washington to go even further in slapping trade restrictions on China. Additionally, China is a massive energy importer itself, so shipping any sort of energy product to the Middle East, where its supply lines are unprotected, is something that works directly against most of China's energy security strategies.

The United States has not yet formalized the gasoline sanctions against Iran in the form of legislation or a U.N. Security Council resolution, and this may be providing Beijing a limited opportunity to hit back at the United States during the trade spat and demonstrate the limits of Beijing's cooperation. However, Beijing will be far more cautious than Russia when it comes to blocking sanctions against Iran and will keep a close eye on Russia's intentions in deciding its next steps. China has long been noncommittal when it comes to sanctions against Iran and will align itself with Russia in forums like the U.N. Security Council to demonstrate its opposition to punitive U.S. economic measures. Of course, if Russia folds and reaches some sort of compromise with Washington, China will comply with the sanctions and avoid being left in the spotlight as the sole sanctions-buster allied with Iran.

In short, Iran has friends that it can turn to if necessary, but the reliability of those friends is by no means guaranteed.

Fending for Itself

In the spirit of self-sufficiency, Iran has long been preparing itself for a U.S.-led offensive against Iranian gasoline imports. Over the past two years, as talk of gasoline sanctions intensified, Iran sought out willing suppliers to help stockpile its gasoline reserves. Iranian gasoline consumption currently stands at around 300,000 to 400,000 bpd, but over the past several months, Iran has been importing well in excess of that amount from mostly Swiss suppliers and now newcomers like Malaysia's state-owned Petronas, which are looking to replace the energy majors that are dropping out of the Iranian gasoline trade while political tensions are high. Iranian and U.S. intelligence sources claim that Iran currently has at least three months worth of gasoline needs (estimates average around 30 million barrels) stockpiled. The director of the National Iranian Oil Refining and Distribution Company claims Iran's gasoline storage capacity is about 15.7 million barrels, which gives Iran about four months of in-storage capacity. Some of the surplus gasoline is sitting on tankers off Kharg Island, but the bulk of the supply is stored on land, where it is less vulnerable to airstrikes.

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