Marketplace Middle East - Blog
6/18/09
Iran's Missed Opportunity
At this critical juncture, the economy is certainly not “front and center” of the protests in Iran since the future of the young republic, as some suggest, is at stake.

But make no mistake, the phrase that former Clinton political strategist James Carville coined during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign, “it’s the economy stupid” applies here. More specifically, it is the mismanagement of vast natural resources and economic isolation due to the country’s desire to develop its nuclear capabilities that has hurt the country.

Iran, according to research from OPEC, ranks number two in proven oil reserves and number two in natural gas reserves. That puts Iran in the top slot on combined total energy reserves. Today, Iran officially says it produces 4.2 million barrels a day of crude, but actual production according to leading energy analysts is about a half million barrels a day short of that.

The reason is quite simple. Iran as a result of economic sanctions has been isolated from the essential tools for development: technology and capital. In business terms, Iran has been a political hot potato that nobody in the West was willing to touch.

Take the world’s largest gas field to illustrate the point. French energy giant Total finished off its work on phases 2 & 3 in the South Pars field at the end of last year. Negotiations on the next phase have been dragging on for a few years, until the National Iranian Oil Company signed a $4.7 billion deal with China National Petroleum Company earlier this month.

Total’s straight talking Chief Executive, Christophe de Margerie said last summer that the political risk was too great. Still trying to keep the prospects warm, a company spokesman this week said negotiations are still underway. China sees only the upside, with little political fallout due to its size and seat on the U.N. Security Council.

But China’s foray into the Iranian energy sector does not solve what has been an ongoing problem for the country. The international oil companies (IOCs), at this stage at least, possess the technology and know-how that Iran desperately needs. With technology and capital, veteran energy analyst Mehdi Varzi said Iran could be producing six million barrels a day, not four. You do the simple math, but at $70 a barrel, we are looking at another $140 million in daily revenues.

Natural gas fits into another category, but we can see neighbouring Qatar growing at least eight percent this year based on the growth generated on the other side of the same giant gas field. Iran with skilled partners should be doing the same.

Top line economic growth in Iran has been a promising 5.7 percent over the past five years, but as those in the developing world know, it is woefully short when two million young Iranians enter the workforce each year. They want opportunity, they see the world differently through the internet and they expect their leader to manage what has been handed to them, whether it is power or natural resources.

While the current President has publicly thumbed his nose at capitalism and the forces of “western” globalization, the leadership has been in fact acting in quite a capitalistic fashion. In the last few years, the government has privatized a host of strategic companies ranging from copper to telecommunications. The financial services sector opened up this year, but the government still owns and operates about three-quarters of the economy.

Recognizing that the state is not the best manager, the government passed Article 44 into law which calls for 80 percent of the economy to be in private hands in the next decade. As Tim De Borde of the London based boutique investment bank and fund manager Turquoise stated on our program, “Iran has been so isolated, but change is occurring.” That is why the fund sees opportunity and has posted average gains of 13 percent a year for the past five years with its Iranian investments.

The problem for the Supreme Leader is that change is nearly unmanageable now because Iran took too long to open up. When that finally did happen, the President and chief communicator did not inspire a lot of risk taking by the major energy companies or banks who feared probes by Washington – some of which are still open today.

Barack Obama offered an olive branch to Iran, cleverly delivered from afar before the elections. During his speech in Cairo President Obama talked about the region’s overdependence “only upon what comes out of the ground”. Many countries have accelerated the pace of reforms, based on the luxury of their energy reserves.

But in Iran, the sums have not added up. The current government has built its budget on overly optimistic energy prices and massive subsidies. As a result, capital investment to support future production has been lacking and political pressure has been building.

A market of 70 million consumers and an abundance of natural resources are appealing, but only if the risk-reward ratio is manageable. Today, it is not.
ABOUT THIS BLOG
John Defterios’ blog accompanies the weekly business program, Marketplace Middle East (MME) that is dedicated to the latest financial news from the Middle East. As MME anchor, John Defterios talks to the people in the know, finding out their opinions on the big business moves in the region, he provides his views via this weekly blog. We hope you will join the discussion around the issues raised.
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