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Why the JCPOA won’t turn Iran into the next Saudi Arabia

By Gregory Brew

Of all the anxieties surrounding this summer’s groundbreaking accord between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, concern over oil has been among the most prevalent. Once the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are firmly in place, sanctions on Iran’s economy, including a set of rigorous restrictions on its oil industry, will begin to recede.

This could unleash a potentially-gargantuan supply of Iranian oil onto an already-saturated world oil market and augment the abilities of the Islamic Republic to influence regional politics. The Washington Institute has warned that a “post-sanctions windfall” will allow Iran to “rescue the Syrian regime, reshape Iraq’s political environment, expand its terrorist proxy activities in various theaters, and otherwise amplify the effects of its destabilizing regional posture.”

There is fuel for such speculation. Iran has the fourth-highest proven oil reserves in the world, and the second-largest gas reserves. If it gains the ability to tap these enormous resources, Iran could potentially become a major world oil and gas producer, rivaling Saudi Arabia, its major regional competitor.

Yet it is far from certain that the JCPOA will have anything like the cataclysmic effect some have predicted. Moreover, it is questionable how far Iran will push its newly-freed oil economy once sanctions are lifted, with a host of infrastructural challenges, as well as some compelling historical experience, potentially foiling the country’s rise into major petro-state status.

Before the U.S. began pressuring it to give up its nuclear ambitions, Iran was a major oil exporter, second only to Saudi Arabia among the OPEC member-states. Production reached 4 million barrels per-day (bpd) in 2007 before dropping to 3.6 million bpd in 2011; sanctions took that down to 2.85 million bpd by July of 2015, with exports dropping from 2.6 million bpd to 1.4 million bpd.

Expectations for Iran to immediately increase its production one sanctions begin to taper off are high. Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zhanganeh boasted in July that Iran would increase its national production by 1 million bpd within one month of sanctions being lifted. While more moderate analysts debate this figure, most agree that Iranian production will increase by the end of 2015, dropping the anticipated price of crude by $10-12 per barrel.

While the impact of greater Iranian production could further depress oil prices which have struggled for over a year, Iran will likely experience a sudden economic stimulus. The World Bank estimates that Iran’s economic growth forecast for 2016 could increase from 3% to a robust 5% if the JCPOA is approved, signaling a real end to the economic stagnation that set in with the sanctions regime.

Commentators and skeptics of the Iran deal have suggested that Iran’s aspirations to regional hegemony will finally become attainable once oil revenues are freed from sanctions limitations. There is the immediate impact of $150 billion in frozen assets to consider, money Iran will potentially be able to access once sanctions are lifted. This enormous windfall along with greater oil revenues will lead to a more strident Iranian policy, challenging Saudi and Gulf interests and ratcheting up support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

But considerable debate surrounds the precise amount of capital Iran has locked away in overseas accounts: $150 billion is the oft-quoted sum, but the Obama Administration has dropped its estimate from $100 billion to $50 billion, and one analysis in Fortune based on information from Iran’s Central Bank suggests that only $29 billion will be immediately available.

Depressed world oil prices will likely increase Iran’s oil revenues by a relatively small amount, from $50 billion to about $65 billion, roughly what it was earning in 2013 before prices fell. Rather than a sudden, tremendous surge in new assets, Iran will see a modest and gradual financial windfall over the course of 2016 and 2017.

How that new income will affect Iran’s foreign policy is difficult to say with any precision. The regime spends an estimated $10 billion per year on foreign “adventures” like the wars in Syria and Yemen, yet this amount dropped in 2014 in light of lower oil prices and seems trifling when compared to the amounts spent by Riyadh on similar endeavors. Saudi Arabia military spending surpasses that of Iran by five times and the UAE’s small force spends 50% more than Tehran on new weapon systems and arms. It is unlikely that any increase in oil revenues will upset this balance.

Support for Iran’s regional allies, proxies and clients will likely be overshadowed by investment that Iran will direct towards is domestic oil industry. Some of Iran’s most important oil fields are 70 years old and after a decade of sanctions the country’s infrastructure, from the wellhead to the refinery, has suffered considerable degradation for want of investment. Even the CIA, in a recent intelligence analysis, predicts that Iran’s economy will take precedence over support for regional allies.

An estimate from Iran’s oil ministry puts the total cost of industry upgrades at $200 billion, roughly half of Iran’s gross domestic product. Iran will have to pump a considerable amount of its new revenues into re-building its industry, and while external agents (including the massive Western oil firms like Royal Dutch-Shell, ENI and Total) have shown considerable interest in investing, the Obama Administration continues to warn off American companies, arguing that Iran’s aging infrastructure makes it a poor candidate for increased investment.

Even if its production reaches former levels, Iran must fight to win back market share from Saudi Arabia, which has increased its own production to record levels in order to force out new producers and bring the price back up. Saudi Arabia dominates the oil market and will likely continue to do so, as its production level (nearly 10 mbd) dwarfs that of Iran. Iran must effectively triple its current production level in order to compete, a feat that could take decades to accomplish.

Finally, a strong historical argument exists that might very well deter Iran from aggressively embracing increased oil production. Oil revenues largely funded the 1960s and 1970s regime of Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, who pumped most of the country’s earnings into its military and expansive modernization programs. The Shah’s policies made Iran a regional power but over-heated the economy, created powerful inflationary effects and so destabilized his regime that it collapsed in the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution.

Ayatalloh Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader, cut Iran’s oil production in half after 1980, causing it to fall from 6.6 million bpd to 3 million bpd. He believed Iran needed a “revolutionary economy” separate from the wider capitalist world.

Khomeini may have been driven by ideological concerns more than hard economics, but his reasoning was largely validated by post-1970s scholarship. Influential texts by Terry Lynn Karl, Hossein Mahdavy and Richard Auty point to a “resource curse” that affects country’s overly dependent on export earnings and rents from oil production. Today, oil-rich economies like Venezuela and Russia are struggling with such dependence.

If history is any guide, Iran will likely steer clear of such a policy, using its new oil revenues to bolster domestic economic growth and infrastructural development, shoring up the political support for its hardline regime (which has staked a considerable amount on reducing sanctions) while continuing its support for regional proxies and allies. The effect of a sanctions-free Iranian oil industry may take some years to reveal itself, but it is unlikely to be as dramatic as some have speculated. After all, the world oil market remains glutted; the Middle East remains a region riven by conflict; and neither the U.S. nor Iran have indicated that they plan to alter the nature of their postures towards one another. Iran’s oil may alter this situation, but it probably won’t upend it completely.

Original published by Modern Diplomacy

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Gregory Brew

Gregory Brew is a PhD candidate at Georgetown University. His research focuses on Iranian history, oil and international relations and U.S. foreign policy.

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