Two online media outlets in Iran have asked the question that is on everyone’s mind: Where is the oil export money the government claims to be earning since 2021.
There is little doubt the Iranian regime succeeded in boosting its oil exports despite US sanctions since late 2020, coinciding with Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential elections and his policy of negotiating a return to the 2015 JCPOA nuclear deal.
Former President Trump’s sanctions had reduced Iran’s crude exports to around 200,000 barrels per day, but since 2021 Iran has been shipping at least 600,000 barrels.
Industry monitoring companies, such as TankerTrackers, Vortexa, Kpler, and other sources estimate Iran exported anywhere from 810,000 to 1.2 million barrels of crude oil per day in the second half of 2022. Tehran keeps the export volume secret, but top officials constantly claim revenues are increasing, without providing details, apparently to protect buyers who are violating US sanctions.
Nevertheless, in the past two years the country’s economic crisis has worsened and many ask where the oil money is and why the revenues do not help the situation. The Iranian currency has more than halved in value and recent reports say annual inflation is approaching 70 percent.
Farazdaily, a website in Tehran posed the question to two members of parliament last week and they did not deny that more oil is being shipped – primarily to China – but they had no answer about why the revenues do not have a positive impact on the economy.
One of the lawmakers who spoke with FarazDaily, Yaghoub Rezazadeh, first secretary of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee claimed that Iran’s current economic problems are partly caused by sanctions in general, that makes trade with other countries hard and exports non-profitable.
If Iran exported an average of 800,000 bpd even at discounted price of around $75 per barrel in 2022, its revenues just from shipping crude oil would have been $22 billion. In addition, there is the export of oil products, such as gasoil, gasoline, and other products, which officials have said generate revenues almost equal to crude exports. Therefore, Iran should have had at least around $35 billion income, a sum that would have financed most of its annual budget.
According to the official budget bill, 55-percent of the government’s operational budget this year is supposed to be generated by oil exports.
In this scenario, the government would not have the need to print money, which is the reason why inflation is approaching 70 percent and the national currency is dropping.
The puzzle about Tehran’s oil revenues is that its main buyer China might not be paying for the oil in US dollars, but instead bartering the oil with goods. Iran might also be offering much larger discounts that observers estimate. The third factor may be the cost of the illicit exports in additional shipping fees and payment to middlemen to repatriate the cash amid stringent US banking sanctions on Iran.
In the worst-case scenario, Iran might be collecting far less than $20 billion in all its energy exports.
Rezazadeh actually admitted that Iran has a hard time repatriating the oil export revenues from China, Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan and some neighboring countries in the Persian Gulf region.
Referring to sanctions he said, “Naturally, with all these impediments we are not able to bring back proceeds form oil exports. Many countries owe us money that we cannot repatriate. We have sold oil, natural gas and food to other countries without collecting the revenues.”