Oil Storms

07.11.2011., ponedjeljak

IRAN: Still crazy after all these years?

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Iran: Heading toward a nuclear show-down?
By Jonathan Marcus Diplomatic and defence correspondent, BBC News

This looks set to be a critical week for diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear programme. The UN's nuclear watchdog - the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) - is due to release a report that is expected to give many more details about the basis for its suspicions that Iran is seeking to develop a nuclear bomb.

As the publication date approaches there's been a flurry of diplomatic activity with noises from Israel - and even from Britain - that a military strike against Iran cannot be ruled out.

As ever with Iran, the big powers are divided. Russia and China are eager that the IAEA pulls its punches, fearing that Iran could be driven into a corner.

Even the Iranians, who continue to insist that they have no desire to have nuclear weapons, have weighed in, claiming that the leaked contents of the IAEA report are "fabrications".

For some years, the IAEA has been warning of its concerns that Iran has been undertaking research related to nuclear weapons. Until now, the details have always been sketchy. There have been fears about "undisclosed nuclear activities involving military related organisations", including explosives research to enable the initiation of a nuclear chain reaction.

This week's report is expected to contain a specific annexe detailing what the agency believes the Iranians may be up to.
Intelligence reports

A flurry of leaked reports sest that there will be details sesting Iran's military nuclear research programme continued after 2003; the point when US intelligence agencies believe that such work was halted due to international pressure. Foreign scientists are said to have played a key part in some of Iran's technological breakthroughs.

You will notice that I have been careful to use words like "sest" and "indicate" because the IAEA has had very limited access to Iran's nuclear programme and the Iranians themselves have been far from helpful in answering the agency's questions.

The main source of the IAEA's material has been the intelligence agencies of several countries. The IAEA has not been able to gather the material itself and the pieces of information with which it has been supplied have been obtained and selected by others.

However, there does seem to have been something of a sea-change within the IAEA itself - a feeling that the full information that it does have on Iran's alleged weapons activities should now see the light of day.

Nonetheless, the IAEA is unlikely to be able to make a definitive judgement as to exactly where the Iranians are along the road towards a bomb.
More diplomacy?

Timelines here are crucial. Indeed, if you look back over the history of the diplomatic battles with Iran, timelines seem to be almost infinitely flexible.

The Israelis, who see an Iranian bomb as an existential threat, have frequently shouted the loudest, but there are generally moments of high anxiety - often leading up to crucial IAEA or UN meetings - after which things calm down again.

Western diplomats take the view that Iran could still be up to three years away from having a bomb, though its research effort has been making steady, albeit slow, progress.

The fuss now centres on this IAEA report and what may come after it. One option would be a full-scale referral to the UN Security Council with the possibility of further economic sanctions. Alternatively, Iran could be given some notice period within which to answer the IAEA's concerns, after which it might be harder for Moscow and Beijing to block a referral to New York.

For now, the diplomatic track probably still has some way to run. Amidst Europe's economic problems, the US end-game in Iraq and Afghanistan, an election looming in Washington and so on, there seems little real enthusiasm for a military option.
How effective?

There are also doubts about just what a military strike would achieve, even if "successful". It might only delay Iran's quest for a bomb, while at the same time confirming its usefulness.

Some US reports sest there are fears of unilateral Israeli military action, though this could just be another attempt to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran. In that sense, this is just one more stage in a familiar crisis.

However, in one important sense things have changed. The broader upheavals in the Middle East - "the Arab Spring" - leave both Israel and Iran uncertain and more isolated. Israel has lost an ally in the Mubarak administration in Egypt and Iran could well be on the way to losing its only steadfast friend, the Syrian government of President Basher al-Assad.

Uncertainty and isolation can influence decision-making in strange ways. This is not the final chapter in the saga of Iran's nuclear programme, but then, no book lasts forever.

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Sam’s Exchange: Iran’s Oil Bourse. Who is next?
16:50 02/08/2011
Biweekly column by Sam Barden


If you look at a map of the Middle East, you will notice that Iran is totally surrounded by American military bases. Full spectrum dominance from the United States military industrial complex is alive and well in the region. Most countries could be excused for feeling a little paranoid, or indeed intimidated by being totally surrounded by the U.S. military. Iran, it seems, is not.
© Photo Source: Sam Barden

Sam Barden

Iran holds the fourth largest oil reserves in the world and the second largest gas reserves. The two main oil trading bourse’s in the world are the New York Mercantile exchange (NYMEX) and the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) in London. Oil is of course priced in dollars. However, Iran has established an oil exchange, known as the International Oil Bourse (IOB). It is located on Kish Island, just off the coast of Iran, and is designated as a free trade zone by the Iranian government. It was created by cooperation with Iranian ministries, the Iran Mercantile Exchange and other state and private institutions in 2005. The IOB is intended as an oil exchange for petroleum, petrochemicals and gas in various currencies other than the U.S. dollar, primarily the euro and Iranian rial and a basket of other major (non-U.S.) currencies. However, on July 13, 2011, Iran began trading on their new bourse. Ironically, they offered oil cargo in USD, and the price offered was higher than traders were willing to pay, so no trades took place. Not a great start for an exchange, but what is really going on here?

Iran is under trading sanctions, and has been since 1979. In 2010, the United States and Europe significantly tightened sanctions on Iran, making it almost impossible for anyone to do business with Iranian companies in banking, shipping, insurance, petrochemicals and other trade. However, not everyone takes notice of them, especially China. In fact, Iran supplies China with about one million barrels of oil per day presently and is estimated to account for at least 15% of China’s imports for 2011. China simply ignores the U.S. driven sanctions on Iran. Iran’s oil bourse could also be a way to ignore the sanctions. According to Iranian parliament member Fakhroddin Heydari, Iran’s oil exchange is a way to dodge U.S. sanctions: “It also strengthens Iran’s position in setting oil prices in regional markets. …The oil bourse helps us break the barriers of sanctions; therefore, enabling the world’s outstanding businessmen to enter into transactions without any problem.” And problems do exist. The other energy hungry nation, India, also buys oil from Iran.

Iran supplies India with about 400,000 barrels a day. Due to sanctions, Iran supplies the oil on credit, and the balance outstanding at present is about $7 billion. India and Iran are apparently going to settle through a Turkish banking arrangement. This will of course attract the ire of the United States and pressure from Israel, and is likely to be a short-lived solution to Iran and India’s trade balance situation. What it does however highlight is the need for an oil clearing union, and Iran’s oil bourse might just tip the balance of other OPEC members, or indeed Russia or Venezuela, to follow suit and sell and price their oil through their own free trade zone oil exchanges. There is clearly a demand. At a time when the U.S. dollar is as vulnerable as it has ever been, Iran is piling on the pressure with their oil exchange. The thing that will kill the U.S. dollar as the world’s reserve currency faster than the debt ceiling or a U.S. debt default is if oil producers and consumers trade oil in other currencies.

If the main oil consuming and producing nations in the world conspire to trade oil over an open exchange, similar to Iran’s Oil Bourse, and price the oil in currencies other than or as well as the U.S. dollar, then the world is likely to be economically more stable. The possibility of seeing commodity exchanges emerging in Russia, Venezuela, Hong Kong, the UAE, or India is high. These exchanges could trade oil and other commodities against national currencies, rather than only against the U.S. dollar. By trading commodities over an exchange, each country involved will be able to provide open liquidity pools. One of the key requisites to becoming a reserve currency is for that country to provide liquidity in their currency. For Russia, trading their oil in rubles would be a natural first step towards cementing the ruble as one of the key world currencies. Likewise, China is already encouraging its trading partners to trade in the Chinese yuan, also likely to be a key world currency.

Iran’s IOB is not new. The timing of its move to trading physical cargos of oil on July 13 seems a clear step towards putting pressure on the U.S. dollar, and to show others that an alternative to the status quo of oil trading is available. The main question is which country will be the next to use its own oil exchanges, and will the U.S. military be able to surround that country?
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