Europe oil buyers return to Tehran to talk business

Thu Jan 23, 2014 9:51pm IST

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* Total, Eni, Saras among those to meet oil officials in
Tehran
    * Iran hopes to reclaim European oil market by end of 2014
    * Plans further meetings in Istanbul, London

    By Ron Bousso and Peg Mackey
    LONDON, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Major European oil buyers are
queuing up to meet Iranian officials as they jostle to
re-establish a strong position with Tehran in anticipation of a
full lifting of Western sanctions.
    Even as the United States and its Western allies try to hold
the line to maintain tough sanctions, executives from European
oil firms - among them France's Total, Italy's Eni
 and independent refiner Saras - have visited Tehran in
recent weeks, industry sources say, for talks with the National
Iranian Oil Co (NIOC).
    Tehran is confident that a thaw in relations with the West
has opened a door to revive suspended oil trade with Europe as
early as the end of this year, sources directly involved in the
talks said. 
    "Everybody is preparing for serious negotiations with Iran,
pending the removal of sanctions," a senior Iranian oil official
told Reuters. "We've already had lots of interest from our
traditional customers in Europe."
    Western oil men are unanimous in viewing contact with Iran
as preliminary and stress that they would do nothing in breach
of the existing sanctions regime.
     "The best way for companies like us to go back to Iran is
to follow strictly the sanctions and push both parties to reach
an agreement which will lead to the lifting of sanctions one
day," Eni Chief Executive Paolo Scaroni told reporters in Davos
on Thursday.
    In November, Iran and the West agreed to a six-month deal in
which Tehran promised to scale back its nuclear programme in
exchange for the suspension of some western economic sanctions.
    The sides began implementing the deal on Monday with hopes
that it will pave the way for a broad settlement of a decade-old
standoff. The accord stopped short of ending the embargo on
European imports of Iranian oil.  
    But that has not stopped Iranian and European oil executives
from starting to talk. 
    "The Iranians are eager to export and they believe it might
be possible by the end of this year, provided sanctions are
lifted," said a senior Western oil executive, after returning
from Tehran. 
    A team from Italian refinery Saras travelled to Tehran in
December at the invitation of NIOC, a source familiar with the
matter said.
    A spokesman from Saras declined to comment and one from
Total did likewise, adding that the company continued to respect
the embargo. Eni also declined comment.
    "The Iranians are optimistic and think things can progress
quickly," said an industry source, recently in Tehran.
    "But that is wishful thinking on their side... They are
acting as if it is a matter of days or weeks before they can
start selling us crude again."
    Before the West tightened sanctions on Iran in mid-2012, the
OPEC member supplied more than 700,000 barrels per day (bpd) -
nearly a third of its overall sales - to the European Union plus
Turkey. The remainder was bound for Asia.
    
    RE-CONNECTING
    Since then, Iran's oil exports - restricted to Asia and
Turkey -  have more than halved to just over one million bpd. 
    On top of the overtures in Tehran, Iran also plans to hold
meetings with long-standing European customers in Istanbul,
Turkey and London within the next several weeks.
    "I suspect it won't lead to anything real. They want to send
optimistic signals and try to put prospective customers on the
spot," an industry source who has been invited to Istanbul said.
    Iranian oil officials are also expected to make an
appearance at the global oil industry gathering in London next
month, International Petroleum Week, after keeping a low profile
since sanctions started.
    Although a full lifting of sanctions is not expected in the
short term, Iran is preparing the ground for a return to the
European market. Buyers, on their part, expect competitive
pricing when it does.
    The halting of Iranian crude imports together with reduced
output from Iraq and Libya have weighed heavily on European
refining profits.
    "The Iranians are testing the water: they're doing market
scouting, which is normal," said a senior European oil
executive. 
    "We still can't import a single drop of Iranian oil, but it
doesn't hurt to show a willingness to keep ties."
        
    The table below shows the Iranian crude oil imported by
companies in Europe, including Turkey, prior to the 2012
European oil embargo. 
    
    Figures in '000s of bpd are based on industry and Reuters
estimates.
    
  Customer    Country    Volume '11
   Tupras    Turkey         200
                         
  Total        France       100
                         
   Shell      UK/NL         100
                         
  Hellenic   Greece          80
                         
  Cepsa      Spain           70
                         
 Motor Oil     Greece        60
  Repsol     Spain           30
                         
  ERG        Italy           30
                         
  Iplom      Italy           30
                         
  ENI        Italy           20
                         
  Saras      Italy           20
                         
 Total                      740
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