Speaking of Bartering for Oil… How about Those Iranian Sanctions?
The United States and the European Union based their Iran sanctions on the financial system behind Iran’s oil trade. The country uses its central bank to run its oil business – the bank settles trades through the Belgium company Swift (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) and the trades are always in US dollars. Once they take full effect in July, US and EU sanctions against Iran will make transactions with the Iranian central bank illegal. When that occurs, this official avenue of trade will shut down. In fact, Iran was shut out of Swift a few weeks ago, so that road is already blockaded.
But the arrogance in the sanctions is the assumption that Iran can only use this one, dollar-based avenue. In reality, the Islamic Republic is considerably more agile than that; removing its ability to trade in the official manner is only encouraging the country to find imaginative new methods to sell its oil.
Since the sanctions were announced, Tehran’s official oil sales have certainly declined. Iran actually preemptively halted oil shipments to Germany, Spain, Greece, Britain, and France, which together had bought some 18% of Iran’s oil. But covert sales have curbed or perhaps even reversed the reduction in shipments. It is impossible to know the details, as buyers and sellers involved in skirting the sanctions are being very discreet, but the transactions are undoubtedly happening.
As mentioned above, Iran is selling oil to India for gold and rupees. China and Iran are working on a barter system to exchange Iranian oil for Chinese imported products. China and South Korea are also quietly buying Iranian oil with their own currencies.
The evidence? Millions of barrels of Iranian oil that were in storage in Iranian tankers a few weeks ago now seem to have disappeared. Officially, no one knows where the oil went. Was it rerouted? Has production been shut in? Is the oil being stored elsewhere?
Oil is fungible, which means one barrel of crude is interchangeable with another. Once it leaves its home country, it can be nearly impossible to know where a barrel of oil originated, if its handlers so desire. And it’s not just barrels that are hard to track – even though oil is carried on ships so large they are dubbed “supertankers” it is surprisingly difficult to keep tabs on every tanker full of Iranian oil.
And the Iranians are using every trick in the book to move their oil undetected. In the last week it became apparent that Tehran has ordered the captains of its oil tankers to switch off the black-box transponders used in the shipping industry to monitor vessel movements and oil transactions. As such, most of Iran’s 39-strong fleet of tankers is “off radar.” According to Reuters, only seven of Iran’s Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) are still operating their onboard transponders, while only two of the country’s nine smaller Suezmax tankers are trackable.
Under international law ships are required to have a satellite tracking device on board when travelling at sea, but a ship’s master has the discretion to turn the device off on safety grounds, if he has permission from the ship’s home state. Some tankers turned off their trackers to avoid detection last year during the Libyan civil war in order to trade with the Gaddafi government.
And Iran is about to gain even greater flexibility in disguising the locations of oil sales, as the National Iranian Tanker Company (NITC) is about to take delivery of the first of 12 new supertankers on order from China. The new tankers will add much-needed capacity to NITC’s fleet at a time when the number of maritime firms willing to transport Iranian crude has dwindled significantly, forcing Iran’s remaining buyers to rely on NITC tankers. Thankfully for NITC, the 12 new VLCCs – each capable of transporting two million barrels of crude – will significantly expand the company’s current fleet of 39 ships.
Sanctions or no sanctions, Iran is moving its oil. But even having your own, off-radar ships to transport oil bought in renminbi or rupees or won doesn’t mean all these tricks and maneuvers don’t have a cost.
Freight costs for each voyage add up to nearly $5 million, a sizeable hit for Tehran. Iran is often also shelling out millions of dollars in insurance for each oil shipment, because the majority of international shipments are insured through a European insurance consortium that is backing away from Iranian vessels because the EU sanctions will make such transactions illegal.
And since business is business, buyers are also demanding much better credit terms from the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) than normal. Traders are reporting agreements giving the buyer as much as six months to pay for each two-million-barrel cargo, a grace period that would cost Tehran as much as $10 million per shipment.
For Tehran to cover freight costs, insurance, and the cost of generous credit terms wipes out as much as 10 percent of the value of each supertanker load. Beyond that, customers are also negotiating better prices. For example, the flow of Iranian oil to China did slow in the first quarter of the year, but not because China endorsed the sanctions. Rather, Chinese refiner Sinopec reduced purchases to negotiate better prices with the National Iranian Oil Company. The country’s imports from Iran are expected to climb back to the 560,000 barrel-per-day level in April.
That trade, along with non-dollar-denominated deals with India, Turkey, Syria, and a long list of other friendly nations, will keep Iran’s finances afloat for a long time. The sanctions may be preventing Tehran from banking full value for each tanker of oil, but there is still a lot of Iranian oil money flowing.
The mainstream media is avoiding all discussion of the demise of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Even fewer people are talking about how sanctions based on Iran’s supposed need to use the US dollar to sell its oil leave loopholes wide enough for VLCCs to sail right through.
Without acknowledging the elephant in the room, articles about Iranian tankers turning off their transponders or India using gold to buy Iranian oil invariably sound like plot developments in a spy thriller. Much more useful would be to convey the real message: The world doesn’t need to revolve around US dollars anymore and the longer the US tries to pretend that the dollar is still and will remain dominant, the more often its international actions will backfire.
[The end of dollar dominance is a very ominous sign for the US economy… especially since the federal government seems to be ignoring this enormous elephant. Ignore it at your peril – or get advice from over 30 financial experts that will help you thrive during the tumultuous times ahead.]
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