By Tsvetana Paraskova
The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is becoming increasingly evident in the oil pricing policies of the two large Middle Eastern producers. The two countries are currently reigniting the market share and pricing war ahead of the returning U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil.
Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s largest producer, has been boosting oil production to offset supply disruptions elsewhere, including the anticipated loss of Iranian oil supply after U.S. sanctions on Tehran return in early November. The Saudis are also cutting their prices to the prized Asian market to lure more customers as they increase supply.
Iran, OPEC’s third-largest producer, is trying to convince its oil customers to continue buying Iranian oil despite stringent U.S. efforts to curb Iranian production.
Iran has slashed its official selling prices (OSPs) for all grades to all markets for September, looking to monetize what could be its last oil sales to some markets in Asia before the U.S. sanctions kick in. Tehran cut the prices for its flagship oil grades to more than a decade low compared to similar varieties of the Saudi crude grades, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Last week, the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) slashed the OSP for the Iranian Light crude grade to Asia by US$0.80 to US$1.20 a barrel above the Dubai/Oman average, used for pricing oil to Asia. The September prices for Iranian Light to Asia are at a 14-year-low compared to the similar Saudi grade sold to the world’s fastest-growing oil market, Bloomberg has estimated.
Earlier this month, the Saudis also slashed the September prices to Asia for their flagship grade, Arab Light, by US$0.70 to US$1.20 a barrel premium over the Dubai/Oman average. The reduction was slightly deeper than expected and the second consecutive monthly cut in pricing. The Saudis cut the prices for all their grades to all markets except for the United States.
Now Iran is also slashing prices for all grades to all markets, with the prices for Iranian Light, Iranian Heavy, Forozan, and Soroush grades to Asia, Northwest Europe, and the Mediterranean all cut by between US$0.50 and US$1.45, depending on the market and grades.
The OSPs for Iranian Heavy and Forozan to Asia were slashed against the similar Saudi grades to their lowest levels since at least 2000, the year in which Bloomberg started compiling the data.
Iranian Light and the Saudi Arab Light for Asia for September are now priced at the same level—US$1.20 a barrel above the Dubai/Oman average.
For the Saudis, the cut is aimed at enticing more buyers in order to take advantage of the refiners in Asia that are looking to cut Iranian oil intake for fear of running afoul of the U.S. sanctions. For Tehran, the cut in prices is an attempt to keep refiners buying by offering yet another incentive for them on top of the extended credit periods and nearly free shipping.
It has also been reported that Iran has started to offer India—its second-biggest oil customer after China—cargo insurance and tankers operated by Iranian companies as some Indian insurers have backed out of covering oil cargoes from Iran in the face of the returning U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
India’s imports from Iran could start to slow from August as some big Indian refiners worry that their access to the U.S. financial system could be cut off if they continue to import Iranian oil, prompting them to reduce oil purchases from Tehran.
The U.S. hasn’t been able to persuade Iran’s biggest oil customer China to reduce oil purchases, but Beijing has reportedly agreed not to increase its oil imports from Iran.
Other relatively large Asian buyers of Iranian oil—South Korea and Japan—are looking for U.S. guidance and (possibly) waivers before deciding how to proceed, but they are currently very cautious and on the lookout for alternative supplies.
Analysts, and reportedly the U.S. Administration itself, currently expect the sanctions to remove around 1 million bpd from the oil market.
Considering the intensity of efforts by the U.S. to cut off as much Iranian oil exports as possible, it is unlikely that even Iran’s significant discounts to Asian customers will save the country’s oil exports.