Europe and Iran Scramble to Save Nuclear Pact

  • Europe and Iran Scramble to Save Nuclear Pact (c) Keith BinnsEurope and Iran Scramble to Save Nuclear Pact (c) Keith Binns

As the second full week in May began, globe-trotting diplomats from France, Germany and the UK, as well as Iran, were scrambling to save the 2015 Iran nuclear accord formally known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The pact has threatened to collapse after US president Donald Trump last week announced plans to withdraw.

Along with time constraints, those working to save it are having to deal with uncertainty about what could happen if the rest of the world bucked a US ultimatum to pull out of Iran.  Foremost among concerns is Washington’s threat of sanctions against countries opting to stay in.

On the receiving end of visits from diplomats and foreign ministers were China and Russia could add weight to efforts to preserve it. Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif flew to Moscow on May 14 to consult with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, as part of a series of international diplomatic meetings that will also see Germany’s new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, meet with Lavrov.

Zarif was on the rebound from a visit with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Beijing. According to state-run news agency Xinhua, Wang told Zarif China will support keeping the pact that has the double goal of keeping Tehran's nuclear ambitions in check while stimulating the country's economy. On May 15, the Iranian foreign minister was due to meet with the foreign ministers of three EU countries in Brussels, where reports said they planned to present “package of initiatives.”

In a telephone call with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani on May 13, UK prime minister Theresa May pledged that the British government would continue to support the agreement. According to Iran’s news agency IRNA, Rouhani told May that the country’s interests in important issues related to the JCPOA, such as selling oil, gas and petrochemicals as well as banking and investment, “must be clearly determined and secured.”

The US government has given European companies working in Iran up to six months to wind down all activities. Under pressure from its religious leaders, who have been skeptical of the opening, Iran has given willing EU governments only 60 days to provide sufficient guarantees that their companies can fulfill their contracts, IRNA reported.

Europeans are divided on the chances to save the accord.

While calling the US action an affront to its allies, they note that no country can afford to risk being blacklisted by the US, which would mean foregoing exports to the world’s biggest consumer market. They fear also that, with the US opposed, companies wanting to invest in Iran will be unable to obtain credit; many transactions go through US banks or are dollar-based.

Without political intervention, Iran could be a pot of gold for Western chemical producers and plant contractors. A 2016 blueprint for bringing the country’s petrochemicals infrastructure up to date foresaw a steady rise in output capability. The 63 million t/y installed in 2015 was projected to rise to 130 million t/y by 2020, requiring a total investment of $62 billion – most of which was to come from foreign firms.

In the three years since the JCPOA was signed, a number of petrochemical projects involving European partners have been announced or mooted, most of them in 2016. A large number are believed to be in the drawer but not yet unveiled.

Among those confirmed, BASF’s oil and gas subsidiary Wintershall signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) to study four onshore oil fields in the western part of the country, a project said to be worth billions of euros. While BASF’smanagement has consistently declined to confirm other plans, recent reports say it has been studying a mammoth petrochemicals complex in the port of Asaluyeh on the Persian Gulf, worth as much as €6 billion.

Although it has never confirmed the deal, German gases and engineering group Linde reportedly won a contract to perform front end engineering design for an olefin, butadiene, hydrodealkylation and benzene plant and secured financing for it.

Anglo-Dutch oil and chemicals giant Shell signed a letter of intent (LOI) with Iran’s National Petrochemical Company (NPC) about exploring potential areas of cooperation. The preliminary agreement was planned to revive projects interrupted in 2010 by US sanctions, including gas to liquids.

France has been one of the biggest potential investors in Iran, with oil and petrochemicals group Total especially active. In mid-2017, it reached a preliminary agreement to build ethane-fed petrochemical and polymerization plants that Iranian sources said could see investment of up to $2 billion.

In what was reported as the only signed-and-sealed commercial agreement between a Western chemical country and Iran since the JPCOA signing, Total agreed to proceed with the second phase of a development project for the South Pars gas field, designed to supply the domestic gas market starting in 2021.

Another French company, industrial gases group Air Liquide, signed an agreement with Iran’s National Petrochemical Company (NPC) to build a 500,000 t/y methanol-to-propylene (MTP) plant.

Not only European companies have established a foothold in Iran since 2015. China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) and NPC subsidiary Petropars are also partners in the Pars project, in which Total holds the majority. In a contract worth about $3 billion, South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering agreed with Ahdaf Investment Company to build the second phase of a major petrochemical and refinery project in southern Bushehr province.

Before the last round of sanctions, Germany was Iran’s biggest Western trading partner. After the JCPOA was signed, the country’s exports there grew by 27%, with the value of exports reaching an estimated $3.5 billion in 2017, reports said.  Following the US withdrawal, the chemical industry association VCI called the withdrawal plans “a setback for disarmament efforts.”

Director-general Utz Tillmann was still hopeful, however.  “As long as Iran keeps to the requirements of the accord, all other partners should definitely hold on it,” he said. Machinery manufacturers in the industry association VDMA opined that as long as the EU did not reintroduce sanctions, countries should stay. By contrast, the Confederation of German Industry, BDI, recommended that its members (to which the other two groups belong) abide by the US sanctions.

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