While one Iranian tanker is attracting global attention, serious oil watchers remain absorbed by a bigger mystery: the hunt for the rest of Iran’s fleet.
The quest has led to ever more inventive methods of tracking ships, and divergent views on the amounts of crude secretly slipping into world markets. That’s because the vessels have mostly “gone dark” since sanctions were tightened this year, switching off transponders that would reveal their location.
“Iran is a black box, but it’s also not a black box” as there are ways to uncover secretive activity, said Devin Geoghegan, global director of petroleum intelligence at Genscape Inc. in Denver, Colorado. “Iran is simply doing a better job of putting their oil into other people’s hands -- or their own storage tin-cans -- than anybody has expected.”
After tearing up a previous accord on Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. President Donald Trump is squeezing trade to pressure Tehran into accepting a different deal. The clash has triggered a range of hostilities, from the targeting of Saudi oil tankers to the shooting down of an American spy drone. It’s also captivated crude traders, hungry for insights that could influence global prices.
While the U.S. State Department aims to shrink Iran’s exports to “zero,” Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh has insisted his nation is working “day and night” to keep sales going, and has a number of clandestine options to enable this.
If there’s one point on which the companies monitoring Iran agree, it’s that the U.S. hasn’t yet achieved its goal: oil is still flowing. But because of their varying methodologies, the analysts differ on how much. Daily exports could be as little as a couple of hundred thousand barrels, or exceed the 1 million a day shipped during previous sanctions under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama.
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