Iran confident it's winning the sanctions war

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In unsurprising, but obviously factually incorrect, remarks, the director of international affairs at the National Iranian Oil Co. was quoted as saying that he didn't see anything abnormal about Iran's oil exports. Mohammad Ali Khatibi Tabatabaei, however, didn't give any figures.

Tabatabaei is clearly wrong. Iranian exports are probably down by at least 1 million barrels per day from about 2.3 million bpd last year as European nations halt purchases and Asian nations scale back imports as part of sanctions aimed at halting funds to Iran's controversial nuclear programme.

But for a sign that the Iranians appear fairly confident that they can ride out Western sanctions, look at the prices they are charging.

When your customers are under pressure to buy less of your product, a normal business tactic would be to offer discounts relative to your competitors in an attempt to boost volumes.

But it appears the Iranians haven't been discounting much, if at all, to their large Asian buyers.

China, the top Iranian crude buyer, paid $98.49 a barrel for Iranian crude in July, while supplies from Saudi Arabia cost $98.85.

Looking at it month by month, January was the last month that China paid more for Iranian cargoes than it did for Saudi shipments, but the swing between August last year and July this year has been a fairly minor 73 cents a barrel.

In January, Iranian oil was $110.92 a barrel and Saudi $110.67, while in August last year it was $111.05 for Iranian and $110.42 a barrel for Saudi.

At best, these numbers show that the price the Chinese are paying for Iranian crude has become slightly cheaper than Saudi, but not by much.

China imported 12.647 million tonnes, or about 92.32 million barrels, of Iranian crude in the first seven months of the year, down 22 percent over the same period last year.

Even assuming that all those barrels were bought at a price of 73 cents less than the Saudi equivalent, it amounts to a paltry saving of about $67 million, certainly not enough to encourage the Chinese to try buy more Iranian cargoes.

In Japan, customs data for cargoes cleared in July showed that Iranian crude cost $101.51 a barrel, while Saudi supplies were $101.04.

That difference of 47 cents a barrel was down from a $2.01 premium for Iranian cargoes in June and a $3.17 premium for May, indicating that perhaps the Iranians are offering steeper discounts in a bid to lure back Japanese refiners.

That policy appears to be working: Japan said it would resume imports from Iran in August, two months after it stopped booking cargoes as European reinsurers withdrew coverage for tanker shipments.

Japan has now provided sovereign guarantees for Iranian cargoes, while China has got around the problem by getting the Iranians to use their own tankers to deliver crude.

The insurance issue has led to a drop in Iranian shipments to India, which fell by more than 40 percent in July from June to 201,900 bpd.

The largest Indian buyer, MRPL, may use tenders to buy high sulphur crude normally supplied by Iran as the insurance issue has yet to be resolved, according to the company.

But with China taking only 22 percent less oil from Iran so far this year and Japan and South Korea saying they will resume buying, Tehran may be feeling confident enough that it can ride out the sanctions, at least for now.

This means that the United States and Europe will have to ratchet up the pressure on Iran's Asian customers if they want to increase the pain being felt by Tehran.

Given the U.S. presidential election in November and the ongoing debt woes in Europe, there may not be much appetite to start ramping up the pressure on China, which is sensitive to being seen to be influenced by the West, or even on allies such as Japan and South Korea.

While the loss of 1 million bpd in sales amounts to more than $36 billion a year in forgone revenue, assuming an oil price of $100 a barrel, the Iranians appear to be saying in their public comments and their pricing strategy that they are coping just fine.

With the Brent oil price having risen about 28 percent since its 2012 low in late June, perhaps the Western world is more concerned about high prices hurting their already weakened economies than they are about escalating the battle against Tehran's nuclear programme.

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