Iran and Iraq Call Saudi Bluff in OPEC’s High-Stakes Poker Game

Saudi Arabia has had its way at OPEC for decades now. But now Riyadh finds its power waning against a resurgent Iran and Iraq all of a sudden as the position has turned.

By hinting it’s prepared to walk away from the negotiations, Saudi Arabia is trying to reassert its authority as Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries ministers meet Wednesday. But Tehran and Baghdad may be willing to take the risk, genuine warning or bluff. Neither of the countries is as dependent on oil prices as Riyadh and both have seen Saudi Arabia gain market share.

“Iran and Iraq have assumed that Saudi Arabia will cut unilaterally because it wanted higher prices and thought they could put the Saudis into a corner. Riyadh has effectively said it isn’t in a corner and will not do a deal unless everyone else contributes,” said Amrita Sen, chief oil analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd.

But there can be enormous consequences. the finances of cash-strapped nations such as Mexico and Russia will get a boost and energy giants such as Exxon Mobil Corp. may soon be flush enough to revive abandoned projects if oil prices rise. But if not, oil’s recent rally is likely to come undone.

“If OPEC does not come up with a credible agreement to cut production on Wednesday oil prices will end the year below $40 a barrel and be chasing down $30 a barrel early next year,” said David Hufton, chief executive officer of brokers PVM Group Ltd. in London.

But only if Iran freezes at current levels and Iraq also reduce output there could be a cut in production is the sane offer that Saudi Arabia is sticking to. Their positions are being held by Iran and Iraq. Iraq wants to freeze, rather than cut while Iran first wants to be able to recover to its pre-sanctions level of 4 million barrels per day.

Iran’s frustration was evident. Reviving the country’s oil output was “the national will and demand of the Iranian people,” said the country’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh in an article in the official news service, Shana. He said that Saudi Arabia should accept Iran as a special case that’s excluded from production constraints, like Libya and Nigeria.

Up from about 6 million barrels a day from late 2014 when OPEC adopted its current pump-at-will oil policy, today together, Iran and Iraq pump more than 8 million barrels a day. And at more than 10.5 million barrels a day, Saudi Arabia remains the largest producer.

“The reality is that only Saudi Arabia and perhaps the U.A.E. and Kuwait are prepared to make any cuts, and those will be modest and short-lived. At best, Iran and Iraq will sign for production freezes,”’ said Bob McNally, founder of consultant Rapidan Group in Washington.

Perhaps the OPEC narrative was attempted to be changed by Khalid Al-Falih, the Saudi oil minister, over the weekend with perhaps that in mind. According to the Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, he said in Dhahran, eastern Saudi Arabia, on Sunday, oil prices will stabilize next year, “and this will happen without an intervention from OPEC.”

(Adapted from Bloomberg)


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