Iran reports highest oil exports yet since US applied sanctions over nuclear deal

Oil minister says 83 million more barrels exported over past year than in previous comparable period, gas exports up 15%; Saudi Arabia’s Aramco reports record profits

An Iranian military speedboat patrols the waters as a tanker prepares to dock at the oil facility on Khark Island, Iran, on March 12, 2017. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
An Iranian military speedboat patrols the waters as a tanker prepares to dock at the oil facility on Khark Island, Iran, on March 12, 2017. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Iran said Sunday that its oil exports had risen over the past year, reaching their highest level since the US imposed fresh sanctions in 2018, according to Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency.

Oil Minister Javad Owji said 83 million more barrels of oil were sold since the start of the Iranian year on March 21, 2022, than in the same period over 2021-2022. It was 190 million more barrels than each of the two years proceeding that, he said.

Gas exports were also up by 15 percent in 2022-2023 compared to the previous Iranian year.

The US imposed strict sanctions on Iran after pulling out of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of action signed between Iran and world powers. The JCPOA gave Iran relief from sanctions in return for curbs on its nuclear program aimed at preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. Sanctions placed a focus on Iran’s oil exports and few countries purchase its crude, with the exception of China. In response, Iran dropped many of its own commitments to the deal, ramped up its nuclear program, and enriched uranium to purity levels far beyond the terms of the nuclear agreement. Iran recently admitted enriching uranium to 84%, a short technical stop from weapons-grade material.

On Thursday the US announced more sanctions against people and firms associated with Iran and with what it said was an illicit banking network used to conceal transactions.

The US said it placed the penalties on 39 firms linked to a shadow banking system that helped to obfuscate financial activity between sanctioned Iranian firms and their foreign buyers, namely for petrochemicals produced in Iran.

The Treasury Department said the companies — from Hong Kong to the United Arab Emirates — made up a “significant ‘shadow banking’ network” that gave cover to sanctioned Iranian entities to disguise petrochemical sales with foreign customers.

“Today’s action demonstrates the United States’ commitment to enforcing our sanctions and our ability to disrupt Iran’s foreign financial networks, which it uses to launder funds,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Wally Adeyemo said.

US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo speaks at the Justice Department, in Washington, January 18, 2023. (Nathan Howard/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a written statement that the US “will continue to disrupt attempts to evade US sanctions.”

Also included in the Thursday announcement is a set of financial penalties on a China-based network of firms and one person accused of being responsible for the sale and shipment of thousands of drone components to Iran. Iran is accused of supplying Russia with drones that are used to bomb Ukrainian civilians as the Kremlin continues its invasion of its Ukraine.

Among other things, the sanctions deny the people and firms access to any property or financial assets held in the US and prevent US companies and citizens from doing business with them.

The sanctions come one day after Iranian prison officials and others were hit with sanctions over the treatment of young women and girls.

Tensions between the US and Iran are high amid months of anti-government protests in Iran and Western anger at Iran’s export of attack drones to Russian forces fighting in Ukraine.

Saudi Aramco bumper profits

Also Sunday, Saudi Aramco said it achieved “record” profits totaling $161.1 billion last year, highlighting how a surge in oil prices after Russia invaded Ukraine spurred growth in the world’s biggest crude exporter.

The mostly state-owned energy giant, the world’s second most valuable company behind Apple, said in a filing with the Saudi stock market that net income for 2022 was up 46 percent from $110 billion in 2021.

The results — the strongest since Aramco became a listed company in 2019 — were “predominantly due to the impact of higher crude oil prices and volumes sold, and stronger refining margins,” it said.

Storage tanks are seen at the North Jiddah bulk plant, an Aramco oil facility, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on March 21, 2021. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Aramco’s gains are consistent with record profits for 2022 reported by the five oil majors –- Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and TotalEnergies — which surpassed $150 billion and would have been closer to $200 billion without costly withdrawals from Russia.

They also fueled Saudi Arabia’s overall economic growth which officials put at 8.7 percent in 2022, the highest rate in the G20.

The net income figure is nearly double the $88.2 billion the firm pulled in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic.

“Aramco rode the wave of high energy prices in 2022. It’s what the company is geared to do,” said Robert Mogielnicki, of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “It would have been difficult for Aramco not to perform strongly in 2022.”

Energy prices are expected to stay elevated in 2023, in part because of production cuts approved last October by the OPEC+ cartel that Riyadh co-leads with Moscow — a move harshly criticized by Washington.

Aramco’s facilities have in the past suffered drone and missile attacks claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels, most recently about a year ago, but a surprise deal announced on Friday between Riyadh and Tehran to restore diplomatic ties severed in 2016 could mitigate the risk in the months to come.

“I don’t envision another record year for Aramco in 2023, but it could still be a solid performance,” Mogielnicki said.

Saudi Arabia has pledged to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2060, drawing skepticism from environmental campaigners.

Officials are simultaneously championing further investments in fossil fuels to ensure energy security and stave off inflation and other economic woes.

“Given that we anticipate oil and gas will remain essential for the foreseeable future, the risks of underinvestment in our industry are real — including contributing to higher energy prices,” Aramco CEO Amin Nasser said Sunday.

Amin Nasser, the chairman and CEO of the state-run oil giant Saudi Aramco, speaks at the World Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, September 10, 2019. (Jon Gambrell/AP)

Aramco has pledged to achieve “operational net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

That applies to emissions that are produced directly by Aramco’s industrial sites, but not the CO2 produced when clients burn Saudi oil in their cars, power plants, and furnaces.

Aramco floated 1.7 percent of its shares on the Saudi bourse in December 2019, generating $29.4 billion in the world’s biggest initial public offering.

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