INSIGHT: Uncertainty surrounds Iran's petrochemical future

30 August 2010 12:30  [Source: ICIS news]

By Hilde Ovrebekk

LONDON (ICIS)--LyondellBasell pulling out of all business in Iran due to US sanctions was another blow to the country’s petrochemicals industry. As the US pushes to implement the sanctions against Iran, how is this going to shape the country's petrochemicals future?

In the past year, a number of companies, including Shell, which pulled out of a major LNG project and stopped gasoline sales, chemicals producer Huntsman and car maker Toyota, have severed ties with Iran over legal or public relations concerns.

Alembic Global Advisors, an independent New York-based equity research firm, said that with western majors exiting Iran, the country would not only face having to cut operating rates, but also difficulties making progress with plans to expand polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) capacities.

It would also be cut off from much-needed chemical technologies, as well as large amounts of catalysts, additives and specialty polymers not produced in the country.

Earlier this month, US officials visited eight countries to push for the implementation of US and UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

In a statement the Treasury Department said that during visits to Bahrain, Brazil, Ecuador, Japan, Lebanon, South Korea, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) it had warned that foreign banks risked losing access to the US financial system if they continued to do business with those blacklisted over the Iranian issue.

South Korea, in particular, has felt the pressure in the past couple of weeks, as Kathleen Stephens, the top US envoy to the country, said it should consider its position as an important member of the international society and levy independent sanctions on Iran, its biggest Middle East trading partner.

Washington said it wants action taken against the Seoul branch of Iran's Bank Mellat.

And according to sources in the South Korean chemicals market, most local banks were now even rejecting TT (telegraphic transfer) payments as long as the transaction was linked to Iran.

One Korean trader said cash would be the only way to pay for anything in Iran.

Another difficulty facing Iran’s petrochemicals industry is the pressure on the UAE, a major trading partner, as insurance premiums for shipping even legitimate goods are soaring as a result of the sanctions.  

The UAE reportedly started to implement UN sanctions against Iran in June.

The country’s central bank then said it had frozen 41 bank accounts. And, according to Dubai-based daily Gulf News, the emirate also closed down the offices of 40 firms suspected of breaching the sanctions.

The limited ability to trade with Dubai may also stop the flow of essential equipment to Iran from the emirate.

According to Matthias Stein, managing director for Linde Engineering Middle East, which had extensive engineering business in Iran until four years ago, Dubai as a financial hub has a major importance for financing Iranian projects and serves as an import and export hub.  

“Iranian companies [have] subsidiaries there and money flows from Iran to Dubai,” he said.  

“For projects we would supply all parts to Dubai and a subcontractor in Iran would do the construction.”

Companies in Germany, Iran’s largest trading partner in the EU, such as Thyssenkrupp, Bayer and BASF, have been criticised by lobby groups and the US Congress for continuing business in Iran.

A spokesman for chemicals and pharmaceuticals firm Bayer said the company’s business in Iran only constituted 1% of group sales and that it mainly provided crop protection products, pharmaceuticals and polyurethane applications for car seats.

“Since we are not part of the petroleum sector, this is not a question for us today,” the spokesman said.

But Alexander Wilke, head of media relations and public affairs at steel maker Thyssenkrupp, said the company had responded to the present sanction regime against Iran and that all the relevant licence requirements and embargoes were strictly observed.

And a spokesman for Thyssenkrupp engineering subsidiary Uhde added that the company was currently finishing up its business in Iran and that the company was not planning to do any more business with the country.

Chemcials major BASF, which has major interests in Iran, did not reply to requests for comment on the issue.

According to Ruth Bartonek, a spokeswoman for Euler Hermes, the agency that manages the German government’s export credit guarantees, cover volume for Iran has been steadily diminishing since 2004, when it posted €2.3bn.

“After posting €133m in the previous year, cover for short-term business was granted to the tune of €68m in 2009,” said Bartonek.

According to recent media reports quoting Rainer Stinner, a member of Germany's Free Democratic party, Iranian officials fear a severe blow to the country's international trade from the latest round of UN sanctions, and that these will lead to decreased imports and exports.

South African Sasol also said operations within Iran were fully compliant with the requirements of the US, EU and UN economic sanctions.

"Sasol has taken measures to ensure that our US employees, investors and certain subsidiaries of the group, to which the sanctions apply, will not violate the sanctions," a spokeswoman said.

"We monitor the situation on an ongoing basis. The Arya Sasol Polymers joint venture, an existing venture, is a going concern and remains a successful business within the Sasol chemicals cluster."

But, if western companies are prevented from doing business in Iran, who will benefit? Some say Russia has been trying to get in the back door by, on the one hand, saying it will back UN sanctions but, on the other hand, helping Iran build its first nuclear reactor.

In a recent report, the Gerson Lehrman Group said that in violation of petroleum-related deals with Iran, China and Turkey recently sold gasoline to Tehran while Russian officials have said they would ship gasoline by the end of this month.

The four countries are also signing deals to invest billions of dollars in Iran's oil and gas fields, petrochemical plants and pipelines, according to the report.

"Sanctions will not hinder us in our joint co-operation," Russian energy minister Sergei Shmatko was quoted as saying at the signing in July in Moscow of an energy partnership agreement with Iran.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect


By: Hilde Ovrebekk
+44 20 8652 3214



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