MELBOURNE (Reuters) - In the end, President Donald Trump kicked the Iran crude oil sanctions can six months down the road, raising questions as to how the various players in the dispute will use the time.
The U.S. government granted waivers to eight buyers of Iranian crude, exempting them from the sanctions that came into effect this week that are aimed at reducing exports from the Islamic Republic to zero.
The waivers will allow the eight countries, which include top buyers China and India, to keep buying crude for another 180 days, a move aimed at reducing the shock of a sudden loss of all Iranian exports.
There are a number of ways of looking at the U.S. decision to grant waivers to countries which together account for some 80 percent of Iran’s total oil exports.
The first would be that Trump and his administration effectively blinked first in their dispute with Iran over its nuclear and missile programmes.
It could also be argued that it was a rare example of ‘realpolitik’ from the Trump administration, with the tacit recognition that cutting Iran’s exports to zero in one fell swoop would boost crude prices, hurting not only U.S. consumers but also the rest of the world.
Trump was keen to talk up his administration’s capability of completely isolating Iran. But perhaps with an eye on the mid-term U.S. elections on Tuesday, he made it clear that keeping crude prices low was also a priority.
“I could get the Iran oil down to zero immediately but it would cause a shock to the market. I don’t want to lift oil prices,” Trump told reporters on Nov. 5 before flying to a campaign event.
The decision to grant the waivers has already calmed oil markets, which hadn’t really anticipated Tehran’s exports dropping to zero but may have also been uncertain as to how much crude would actually be lost.
Brent crude closed at $72.13 a barrel on Tuesday, down 1.4 percent from the close on Nov. 5., and down 15 percent from the four-year high of $84.79 reached on Oct. 3.
Tanker-tracking and port data suggests that Iran has already suffered a fairly steep drop in exports prior to the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions.
From some 2.6 million barrels per day (bpd) of exports in 2017, Iran’s exports dropped to around 2 million bpd in recent months, according to Refinitiv data.
A further drop is on the cards for November, with the caveat that tracking Iran’s exports has become more difficult given that state-owned tankers are turning off their vessel-monitoring systems.
With the granting of the waivers, it’s likely that Iran will be able to keep its exports at least around 1.1 million bpd, and possibly even as high as the 2 million bpd of recent months.
For the Iranians, the 180-day waivers provides them with a financial lifeline and time to try and lobby support from other countries against Washington’s sanctions.
For major buyers like China, which imported about 650,000 bpd of Iranian crude in the first 10 months of the year, the waivers allow it to maintain diversity of supply, as well as keeping prices lower.
With Iranian barrels still in the market, the pressure on other major exporters like Saudi Arabia and Russia to ensure a well-supplied market - or risk Trump’s displeasure - is reduced. But they may not be happy if crude prices continue to weaken.
The big question is how does the Trump administration use the six-month window it has granted to Iran.
Will there be any genuine attempts to find common ground with Tehran on 2015 deal reached together with other Western powers to limit Iran’s nuclear programme?
Or will the United States use to time to ensure that it can enforce the sanctions when the 180 days expires, while not causing oil prices to spike?
It seems unlikely that Washington and Tehran could agree to re-work the nuclear deal in such a short time period, even if only relatively minor changes were made, similar to the re-worked North American Free Trade Agreement recently concluded by the Trump administration and Canada and Mexico.
In the meantime, the oil market can probably cross Iran off its list of worries, but pencil it back for sometime around April next year.
(Interactive graphic: Imports of countries with waivers - tmsnrt.rs/2RBDfS5)
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
Editing by Kenneth Maxwell