EU plans for Iran gas imports if sanctions go

Plans to import gas from Iran URGENT as EU-Russia relations worsen

EU ministers in the middle of discussion.
EU ministers in the middle of discussion.

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The EU is preparing plans to import natural gas from Iran despite sanctions and a lack of pipeline infrastructure, a European Commission source involved in developing EU energy strategy told Reuters.

"Iran is far towards the top of our priorities for mid-term measures that will help reduce our reliance on Russian gas supplies," the source said. "Iran's gas could come to Europe quite easily and politically there is a clear rapprochement between Tehran and the West."

Europe's current biggest supplier of natural gas, Russia currently meets one third of its demand worth $80bn a year. The EU has imposed sanctions on Moscow over the conflict in Ukraine, increasing the need for gas from elsewhere.

Iran- the world second largest gas exporter, after Russia, is a potential alternative given talks between Tehran and the West to reach a deal over the country's disputed nuclear programme.

"High potential for gas production, domestic energy sector reforms that are underway, and ongoing normalisation of its relationship with the West make Iran a credible alternative to Russia," said a paper prepared for the EU's Directorate-Generale for External Policies following Russia's annexation of Crimea.

In the short term, the paper added, Iran was not a credible alternative energy supplier due to sanctions and large infrastructure needs before exports become viable. Internal EU energy security documents seen by Reuters also describe plans to tap new non-European gas import sources in central Asia, including Iran.

"Iran can be a secure energy centre for Europe," its President Hassan Rouhani was quoted on Wednesday telling Austrian President Heinz Fischer in New York.

Tehran's assertions over reliable supply are likely to ring alarm bells at Russia's giant Gazprom, after interruptions to its exports via Ukraine in previous disputes scared Europe.

"Iran is trying to position itself in Europe as an alternative to Russian gas. It's playing a very sophisticated game, talking with Russia on the one hand about cooperation on easing sanctions and also talking to Europe about substituting Russian gas with its own," said Amir Handjani, an independent oil and gas specialist working in Dubai.

"Given Russia's current strategy politically, which is one of confrontation with Europe, I see the EU having little choice but to find alternative gas supplies," he added.

SANCTIONS AND ROUTES

The lifting of sanctions on Iran - the game changer - is unlikely to be soon. Diplomats are pessimistic over the odds that Iran and world powers will conclude a final agreement by a Nov. 24 deadline.

Iran and six world powers - the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - are trying to hammer out a long-term nuclear accord that would bring an end to international sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy.

Analysts say Iran has already lost out on lucrative liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports in Asia, where customers pay the highest prices, to Gulf rival Qatar, so Tehran has to look to Europe.

"Iran's interest to deliver gas to Europe is very big. Parts of Iran's economical and political elite as well as Western companies are preparing for an end of the sanctions," said Frank Umbach, energy research director at King's College in London.

Mark Dubowitz, of U.S. think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran was looking to exploit the situation in both Iraq and Russia to get concessions out of the West on the nuclear track.

"Washington should be wary of any attempt to further erode its negotiating position by opening up any more economic escape hatches for Iran until a comprehensive deal is reached, and enforced, that dismantles Tehran's military-nuclear programme," said Dubowitz, who has also advised U.S. lawmakers on sanctions.

The most feasible route for Iranian gas to Europe would be via Turkey, already a customer, although the existing Tabriz-Ankara pipeline would not be big enough for major exports.

Iran has long lobbied to build a designated pipeline that would connect its huge South Pars gas field with European customers - the so-called Persian Pipeline.

"It's an extremely ambitious project," Handjani said. "Even if half of it gets built it would be major accomplishment for both Europe and Iran."

Investors in Europe, as well as the European Commission, favour the cheaper, and politically less controversial, option of importing Iranian gas to the EU via Turkey through extended pipelines that already exist or are currently being developed.

Energy majors Total of France and Italy's Eni have in the past expressed interest in developing South Pars, one of the world's biggest gas fields, shared by Qatar and Iran, with total reserves estimated around 50 trillion m3, enough to meet European demand for over 100 years.

Independent feasibility studies show that, if sanctions were to be eased and investments started soon, Iran could supply between 10 and 20bn m3 of gas a year to Turkey and Europe by the early 2020s.

"Our main point of contact with the Iranian government is through its embassy in Berlin, and its new ambassador there is a former member of Iran's energy ministry," the Commission source said.

 

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