And So, the Sanctions Drama Begins

Today, the first tranche of sanctions on Iran go into effect. Iran will struggle with the economic implications but is unlikely to concede to the extensive demands of the Trump Administration. In November, the sanctions will turn to crude oil, complicating U.S. relations with a host of countries who import Iranian crude. The drama, therefore, is not just between the U.S. and Iran, but also between the U.S. and Iranian crude importers. Look for intended and unintended linkages between waivers to the sanctions and other economic or diplomatic objectives of the Trump Administration.

No Change on Sanctions on Iranian Importers

Following a week during which President Trump met with most of the signatories to the JCPOA, there appears to have been no movement on a concerted approach to Iran that would replace the JCPOA. Moreover, despite somewhat contradictory reporting, the Trump Administration continues to indicate that waivers on sanctions would be limited at best. The loss of Iranian exports continues to look inevitable. This is consistent with the President’s urging of producers to increase output and the discussion of an SPR release.

Harder U.S Line on Iran with Higher Stakes

The Trump administration is taking an even harder line on Iranian oil exports than the Obama administration did prior to the nuclear deal, resulting in what amounts to an extraordinarily high stakes game of chicken over the next several months. In the longer term, the U.S’s application of unilateral sanctions risks states and coalitions developing alternative methods to purchase crude oil outside of linkages to the U.S. banking system

North Korea Summit Reduces Tensions for Now

The summit between President Trump and the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has come and gone in a flurry of photographs and a very short and very vague agreed statement. The meeting was largely symbolic and strict U.N. sanctions remain in place, but reduced tensions could eventually create an environment for stronger trade links between North Korea and China, Russia, and South Korea

Europe Wrestles with Iran Sanctions

Europe faces a choice: fight US sanctions and continue buying oil from Iran, or cave to US pressure? Early signs are the EU will fight. The European Commission has reopened the 1996 Blocking Statute that prohibits EU companies from observing US extraterritorial sanctions and is considering paying Iran for its crude oil in euros. On the face of it, the Blocking Statute has teeth – yet implementing it would be messy. It will do little to blunt the impact of US sanctions, but as a negotiating tool it could help Europe extract concessions from President Trump.
Monthly Permian production growth (conventional and shale) has averaged almost 70,000 b/d since the start of the year.  But by this summer, ESAI Energy expects this growth will face increasing pressure from full pipelines and labor shortages. The pressure will last through the next twelve months, until additional takeaway capacity starts to come online.

What’s Next for Iran

Following President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the JCPOA, the response of Iran, Europe, Russia and China over the next several weeks will be closely watched. The U.S. and Europe are likely to continue discussions regarding joint action on Iran and the imposition of secondary sanctions on European companies. Whether China, Russia and, one day, Iran can be brought back to the negotiating table will depend on statements, actions and likely exogenous events over the wind down period. 

Saudi Crown Prince Continues Power Consolidation

Over the last few days, Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, has arrested or detained individuals
under the charge of corruption. Yet, these efforts are intended to consolidate his power before he becomes
King. Perhaps this consolidation is essential to the successful execution of his Vision 2030, but it does fly in
the face of projecting a transparent, increasingly liberal economy worthy of foreign investment.

More at Stake in Saudi than IPO

King Salman is the last of the Sudairi Seven to rule Saudi Arabia before the next generation (grandsons of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud) takes power. If Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, ascends the throne in the next one to two years, he will rule – absent medical issues or political upheaval – for decades. This will include the period when judgment will be rendered on his Vision 2030 for diversification of the Saudi economy. The oil market’s focus on the Saudi Aramco IPO and its perceived connection to Saudi oil policy should be seen within the context of larger issues related to internal stability.

Trump Tosses Iran Policy to Congress

On Thursday, President Trump will make a speech on Iran in which he is expected to not certify that Iran is in compliance with the Nuclear Deal, as required every 90 days. This will give the Congress 60 days to take up the issue of putting sanctions back in place. At this juncture, a return to the status quo ante “the Deal” is impossible given the positions of the other P5+1 countries. But, Congress may take other steps to turn up the heat on Iran.

Tensions Rise as Kurdistan Votes

The autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq voted for independence last week in a resounding – but non-binding – referendum. Baghdad has dismissed the vote. Turkey and Iran, with large Kurdish populations themselves, have threatened a blockade. Turkey’s threat to shut the Kirkuk-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline puts Kurdistan’s nearly 600,000 b/d of crude exports at risk. Ongoing tensions have already encouraged a temporary run-up in Brent prices, and will keep a small geopolitical premium on the price of crude.

Tensions with North Korea will Continue

Current tensions between North Korea and the international community, but especially the U.S., South Korea and China are bound to continue and threaten military conflict that could escalate to a previously unthinkable outcome. While oil and gas trade with North Korea is quite small, any threat of military action in the region will impact shipping and lift the price of waterborne goods.

North Korea – Strategic Misperceptions

This morning the Trump Administration indicated that U.S. policy towards North Korea is moving from “strategic patience” to “strategic accountability”. That summary of the current situation seems far less bellicose than recent statements by either side. Moreover, U.S. policy is focused on encouraging China to step in more proactively, which gives the impression that U.S. direct action is still arm’s length away. Yet, as discussed below, misperceptions on both sides could quickly lead either side to escalate from statements to action.