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The Economist (Intelligence Unit) - Iran on a knife edge (2018)

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Iran on a knife edge – as nuclear deal goes
up in smoke
A report by The Economist Intelligence Unit
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IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
Contents
Introduction2
The US decision to withdraw
3
Response from other JCPOA signatories
3
The impact of fresh US sanctions
4
Summary9
1
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
Introduction
T
he future of the international nuclear agreement between Iran and leading nations is highly
uncertain. The deal is likely to be modified in the months ahead and there is a risk that it could
be scrapped altogether. The agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action ( JCPOA),
was agreed between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (namely the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia
and China) and implemented in 2016. It lifted various international sanctions on Iran and has enabled
the country to begin the process of reintegration into the global economy in return for the suspension
of its nuclear ambitions. In particular, the JCPOA allowed Iran to export its crude oil and other energy
products freely, source foreign direct investment in most sectors and access its foreign-exchange
reserves in international banks.
The JCPOA is a complex and fragile agreement that is subject to periodic review, when the
signatories to the deal assess Iran’s performance and formally declare whether or not the country’s
sanctions-free status should be maintained. One such point of review will take place in May 2018, amid
a background of heightened geopolitical tension among world leaders, intense jostling for positions
of power in the Middle East and a growing risk of confrontation between the US and Iran. The US
president, Donald Trump, has called on the US Congress and its European counterparts to “fix” the deal
and seek major new concessions on Iran, or he will follow through on threats to pull the US out of the
JCPOA.
The other signatories to the JCPOA in Europe, Russia and China are putting immense pressure on
Mr Trump’s administration to stay with the deal and compromises on all sides could be reached to
keep the agreement intact by the deadline of May 12th. However, there is a real risk that the talks will
break down and that a fresh wave of US sanctions will be imposed on Iran. This white paper from The
Economist Intelligence Unit specifically focuses on the scenario of a US withdrawal from the JCPOA,
its unilateral reintroduction of sanctions on Iran and assesses how these might impact the economic,
political, security and social situation in Iran and the wider Middle East.
2
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
The US decision to withdraw
The JCPOA was agreed under the US presidency of Barack Obama and has been lambasted by
Mr Trump as the “worst deal ever made”. Repeatedly, Mr Trump has stated his dissatisfaction with
the JCPOA, highlighted Iran’s ballistic missile programme as a major concern and pointed to Iran’s
continued meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, which is perceived to be destabilising to the region and as
counter to US interests. In January 2018 Mr Trump gave the deal’s European signatories an ultimatum,
whereby he said that the US would withdraw from the JCPOA should Europe fail to address three key
issues: the fact that UN inspectors are not permitted onto Iranian military sites; the omission of Iran’s
ballistic missile programme from the agreement; and the “sunset” clauses, which give the deal an end
date of as little as ten years. Most recently, Mr Trump’s appointment of John Bolton as national security
adviser and Michael Pompeo as secretary of state, both of whom are vocal critics of the JCPOA and
widely regarded as hawks on Iran, increases the risk of the US taking a hard line and pulling out of
the deal.
Under this scenario, a US withdrawal from the JCPOA involves its unilateral reimposition of the
sanctions that were lifted in 2016. This would fully recreate a sanctions regime that: prohibits “US
persons” from conducting any trade or investment in Iran, which includes any US citizen, permanent
resident, company or person located in the US, as well as all non-US entities owned or controlled
by a US person (US primary sanctions); and fully prohibits non-US persons’ dealings related to Iran
(US secondary sanctions). Crucially, US-based banks and their affiliates would continue to be barred
from handling any “indirect” transactions with Iranian banks (known as “U-turn” transactions). This
would prevent a European bank, for example, from handling a transaction with an Iranian bank
if that transaction were to be cleared through a US bank (even if the money does not stay there).
Such indirect contact with US banks is a regular feature of the international banking system. This
situation would increase restrictions on Iran’s ability to export energy and non-energy goods, import
intermediate and end products (as well as business services), access international capital flows and use
the international financial payments system. The US Treasury’s current mechanism for reintroducing
the sanctions that were lifted in 2016 includes a 180-day preparation period. This time period would be
employed by Mr Trump’s administration in order to create room for a concerted diplomatic campaign
to bring European allies on side, and to try and persuade other importers of Iranian oil to cut back on
their purchases.
Response from other JCPOA signatories
The US may reinstate sanctions on Iran in an attempt to nullify the JCPOA and put pressure on the
Iranian administration to toe the line, but none of the other signatories will be keen to renegotiate
or scrap the deal. European countries have serious misgivings over the impact that fresh sanctions
would have on economic, political and social stability in Iran and the wider Middle East, as well as
concerns over the impact on its business interests in the region. European signatories to the JCPOA
would attempt to tread a fine line between supporting the US and protecting trans-Atlantic relations
while seeking concessions from the US in strategic non-oil areas affected by US secondary sanctions.
Ultimately, and under this US pull-back scenario, the European partners would resist imposing fresh
3
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
sanctions and attempt to protect their own interests, although European-based businesses would still
be wary of taking on the risk posed by the US sanctions regime and become much more risk-averse
towards transactions with Iran.
The situation for China and Russia is more clear-cut, and both countries would not join the US in
placing new sanctions on Iran—as they did prior to the implementation of the JCPOA agreement. US
tensions are currently high with China and Russia over international trade and the Syrian conflict,
respectively, while both countries remain staunch advocates of maintaining the JCPOA. China
has expanding business interests in Iran that it would wish to protect, while Russia would see the
reintroduction of sanctions by the US as another opportunity to drive a wedge between Mr Trump’s
administration and European leaders. European countries and other nations may introduce “blocking
regulation”—which seeks to prohibit non-US persons from complying with US secondary sanctions and
re-enforce the jurisdiction of non-US courts or authorities with respect to US sanctions violation—and
file complaints at the World Trade Organisation.
Iran would be presented with two choices: either it could try and salvage what economic benefits
that remain from the JCPOA without the US, or it could end the UN weapons inspections and abandon
the deal, restarting its nuclear weapons programme. Although anti-US rhetoric would rise immediately
and Iranian military aggression could pick up against the US in the region, we would expect the country
to play a waiting game over its commitment to the JCPOA, at least initially, to see whether the EU and
other signatories uphold the deal.
The refusal of the five non-US JCPOA signatories to reimpose sanctions, as well as efforts to bypass
US sanctions by trading in local currencies and providing government financing for projects, would
probably be enough to save the JCPOA in the short term. In addition, the Iranian government’s initial
calculations would take into account widespread recent domestic protests, largely over economic
grievances and corruption. Wary of further regime-threatening unrest, the authorities would attempt
to protect the economy. Therefore, we would not expect a resumption of Iran’s nuclear programme in
the immediate aftermath—although there would be a significant risk of this occurring.
The impact of fresh US sanctions
The unilateral reintroduction and tightening of existing sanctions on Iran by the US would have a
tangible impact in a number of areas, including: security in the Middle East; the global oil market; and
the Iranian economy. In summary, the expectation would be:
lR
egional security deteriorates. Hardliners in Iran gain the upper hand over their moderate
counterparts, which leads to a more confrontational foreign policy. Tensions between Iran and Saudi
Arabia escalate, and the risk of conflict between Iran and Israel in southern Syria becomes a serious
possibility.
lD
ip in global oil supplies and higher prices. Brent crude prices rise by US$5-10/barrel in the short term
as risk premiums increase and Iranian oil output declines by 2019.
4
l I ranian economy enters recession. The Iranian economy experiences a mild contraction in 2019,
driven by lower oil and other exports, heightened currency instability and restricted access to
international finance. Weak investment and high unemployment spur the re-emergence of regimethreatening protests in Iran.
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
Deteriorating regional security
A US withdrawal from the JCPOA would ratchet up tensions in the Middle East, raising the risk of new
conflict that pits Iranian proxy forces against the US and its allies in the region. Crucially, the longrunning political battle in Iran between moderates and reformists pushing for deeper relations with
the West, and hardliners demanding much greater resistance to Western influence, would swing from
the former to the latter. A failure to deliver a “post-sanctions dividend” would test the patience of the
Iranian public and that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which would exacerbate social
unrest and lead Ayatollah Khamenei to renew and intensify calls to build a “resistance economy”. This
would empower hardline conservative elements of Iran’s military-political establishment and lead to a
more confrontational approach to foreign policy.
Iran would remain a tinder box owing to heightened popular frustration with the government’s
economic management and nationalistic sentiment fuelled by hardline conservatives. A US
abandonment of the nuclear deal, combined with a deterioration in economic conditions, would
probably lead to an eruption of civil protests. This situation would be exacerbated by the unpredictable
interventions of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the country’s political and economic
spheres, as well as the residual dominance of vested business interests. Political and social reform
would be stifled, and economic liberalisation would be likely to stall. With more than 1m new entrants
to the labour market every year, far outstripping job creation, and the youth unemployment rate
already at over 25%, the pressure would continue to mount on the Iranian authorities, which could
prompt a change in political leadership but not wholesale regime change, as the status quo would be
protected by the IRGC and other security forces. The IRGC would be very unlikely to allow for greater
transparency and competition in the Iranian economy.
The absence of international diplomatic channels and an increase in inflammatory and belligerent
rhetoric (particularly as the US looks to justify its withdrawal from the JCPOA by highlighting Iranian
malevolence in the Middle East) would raise concerns within Iran of military confrontation with the US
or its regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. In response, Iran would shore up support for its regional
proxies as a form of deterrence, which would increase the risk of a spiral of insecurity with Saudi Arabia
and Israel that could lead to the breakout of new conflicts. Southern Syria is a major concern, where
Israel is already threatened by Iran’s military presence and where military conflict between Iran and
Israel is already a considerable risk. The prospects of Iran winding down support for the Houthi rebels
in Yemen would diminish, prolonging the ongoing civil war there. Also, Iran would be likely to step up
efforts to disrupt shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran has threatened to restart its military-based nuclear programme should the US withdraw from
the JCPOA and reimpose nuclear-related sanctions. The Iranian leadership has repeatedly stated that
its nuclear programme would be ramped up quickly to “a situation much more advanced” than before
the JCPOA. In practice, this means that Iran would take the necessary steps to ready its nuclear facilities
for a quick restart in the second half of 2018, but it would be careful to avoid measures that would
violate the JCPOA and unsettle non-US signatories. However, such brinkmanship is not expected
to lead to a restart of the nuclear programme given the likelihood that such a move would probably
prompt airstrikes by the US and Israel (and possibly other Western states). Instead, the Iranian
government would focus on driving a wedge between the US and the so-called EU3 (the UK, France
5
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
Regional footprint
Israel–Syria border: Rampedup support for Iran's proxies in
Syria would increase the risk of
a war with Israel.
TURKMENISTAN
Mashhad
Tehran
SYRIA
LEBANON
ISRAEL
Eastern Syria: Iranian proxies
would step up clashes with
US troops in eastern Syria.
TURKEY
Damascus
IRAQ
IRAN
Baghdad
AFGHANISTAN
Isfahan
JORDAN
Basra
Iraq: Iranian-backed Shia militias
would start pressurising the
estimated 5,200 US troops in Iraq.
Shiraz
KUWAIT
BAHRAIN
LIBYA
EGYPT
The
Gulf
Bandar Abbas
QATAR
Riyadh
Red
Sea
SAUDI ARABIA
Jeddah
Yemen: Iran's Houthi allies would
step up rocket fire aimed at Saudi
oil infrastructure and oil tankers
in the Red Sea.
Sanaa
UAE
PAKISTAN
Dubai
Abu Dhabi
OMAN
The Gulf: Increased Iranian
aggression in the Gulf would
risk clashes with the US and
endanger global oil supplies.
YEMEN
and Germany) by casting itself as the aggrieved party, while co-ordinating and courting support from
China and Russia. In any event, Iran’s response to the US would be greater uncertainty and instability in
the Middle East in 2018 and possibly 2019.
Higher oil prices, but no global energy crisis
Our baseline projection is that spot prices for Brent crude would increase by between US$5 and US$10
per barrel during much of 2018, which would lead us to raise our average oil price forecast for 2018 from
US$66.5/b (dated Brent Blend) to US$72/b. Oil prices would probably average around US$9/b above
our central scenario for 2019, which is an average oil price of US$62.8/b. In addition, global oil stocks are
already tightening, with an expected average market surplus of just 130,000 barrels/day (b/d) in 2018-19.
The impact of US sanctions on Iran’s oil exports would drive this balance into a slight deficit. This would
add greater volatility to the oil market, with slight changes in market dynamics having a larger impact
than seen in recent years. Geopolitical flare-ups in the Middle East would therefore lead to increasingly
sizeable short-term price spikes.
Currently, we think that it would be unlikely that a US withdrawal from the JCPOA alone would drive
oil prices above US$80/b for a sustained period. Market expectations of new sanctions restricting Iran’s
oil exports and the likelihood of rising geopolitical risk would underpin the initial oil price rise in 2018.
An even sharper price correction appears unlikely, as a US withdrawal from the JCPOA has already been
partially priced into the oil market, following Mr Trump’s heated rhetoric and an increased risk of more
confrontational policymaking since the turn of the year. Also, the initial Iran/JCPOA-related price rise
6
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
Brent crude oil price
(US$/barrel)
Core forecast
Alternative scenario
78
78
76
76
74
74
72
72
70
70
68
68
66
66
64
64
62
62
60
60
58
58
Q1
2018
Q2
Q3
Q4
Q1
19
Q2
Q3
Q4
Q1
20
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit.
would start to ease in the closing stages of 2018, partly as it became clear that Iran’s oil exports would
not be as severely affected as they had been under the pre-JCPOA sanctions regime. Crucially, any
loss in oil supply to the global oil market could be partly offset by rising US shale output as higher oil
prices drive short-term investment, while Russia and various OPEC producers with spare capacity raise
production levels.
Iran would experience a drop in oil exports that reaches around 400,000 b/d in 2019, which would
fall far short of the more than 1m b/d of Iranian oil that were excluded from the global energy market
prior to the JCPOA. The US will find it much harder to force down Iran’s oil exports this time around,
particularly as European states would be unwilling to join the US in implementing nuclear sanctions
and to curtail their energy imports from Iran to the extent that they did prior to the JCPOA. The EU
imports more than 600,000 b/d from Iran and would make some modest concessions to the US. In
addition to this, some EU oil companies would be likely to view Iranian oil contracts as too risky to
purchase, regardless of the EU’s stance against reimposing nuclear-related sanctions. Current tensions
between Turkey and the US, notably over US support for the Kurds in Syria, would lead Turkey to
oppose US sanctions on its estimated 250,000 b/d of Iranian oil imports.
A large and growing proportion of Iranian oil would flow to Asia, particularly China and India, which
would be reluctant to fall into line with US sanctions. Around 1m b/d of a total 2.5m b/d of Iranian crude
and condensate oil exports went to China and India in March 2018 and Iran’s Ministry of Petroleum
expects this to rise to 1.3m b/d from April. With China unwilling to comply and India looking to expand
economic ties with Iran, the US would be unlikely to dent these numbers by any significant margin—
although some Chinese and Indian importers may look to redirect their energy product purchases
to less risky options. Moreover, in the medium term China and India may be willing to increase their
purchases of Iranian oil at cut-price deals, as Iran offers financial incentives in an attempt to restrict
its oil export losses. Export losses to South Korea and Japan would be incurred, although both have
7
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
already seen a fall of around 20% year on year in crude imports from Iran during the first quarter of
2018, as a result of risks concerning the JCPOA and US withdrawal.
Downturn in the Iranian economy
A US withdrawal from the JCPOA and the reimposition of sanctions represent a major downside
risk to the Iranian economy. A reduction in Iran’s oil exports in 2018 and 2019, combined with weaker
national and foreign investment, would lead to a modest contraction in real GDP growth in fiscal year
2019/20 (March 21st-March 20th). Under our central forecast, we expect growth to average 4.1% a year
in 2018/19-2019/20, but given that oil accounts for around two-thirds of the Islamic Republic’s export
receipts, a 400,000-b/d cut (equivalent to over 15% of current oil export volumes) would have a drastic
impact on growth and the public finances. That said, the economy would be likely to return to weak
but positive economic growth thereafter, with trade not as curtailed as was the case in the pre-JCPOA
period of 2012-15.
With the country’s international reputation on the wane, Iran would become ever more reliant on
China and Russia to shield it from further international sanctions—an approach that would yield some
success at the UN, but would deny the country the infusions of Western investment and technology
that it badly needs to upgrade its economy. Under pressure from renewed sanctions and faced by
reticent Western businesses and investors, Iranian economic policy would take on more aspects of
the supreme leader’s “resistance economy”. Under this economic model, the government would
increase efforts to enhance self-sufficiency and domestic production in some areas, while protecting
or developing the economic role of state bodies such as the IRGC and religious foundations at the
expense of some foreign (Western) investors. However, the government would have little choice but
to tighten its belt as oil revenue declines and the weak economy depresses tax and customs earnings,
forcing it to pare back capital projects and refocus spending on the military, public-sector salaries and
pensions in order to buttress its support base.
Recent government efforts to unify Iran’s dual currencies would fail following the US’s decision
to leave the JCPOA and reimpose sanctions. The Iranian authorities unified the official and market
exchange rates at IR42,000:US$1 in early April 2018, after the market rate collapsed to record lows of
IR60,000:US$1, which was essentially caused by market concerns over the longevity of the JCPOA.
The Iranian authorities are already struggling to provide the necessary hard currency to maintain the
current exchange rate, with foreign-exchange shops reluctant to trade at IR42,000:US$1. With the
Iranian authorities unable to balance supply and demand for foreign exchange, hindered by falling
export revenue and restricted access to international finance, the black-market rate would be likely
to soar well beyond IR70,000:US$1 in 2018-19. Bank Markazi (the central bank) would then be forced
to make further devaluations of the official rate, driving up inflation to 2014-15 levels (around 15-16% a
year on average during 2018-19), as import costs rise.
Faced with renewed economic downturn and a governmental crackdown (led by the IRGC) on
reformers and civil liberties campaigners, a new wave of Iranians would be expected to leave the
country. As with earlier waves of emigrants, this latest outflow would have a disproportionately
negative impact on the country’s skill base, reflecting the fact that the most skilled Iranians are usually
the best placed to depart.
8
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
IRAN ON A KNIFE EDGE – AS NUCLEAR DEAL GOES UP IN SMOKE
Externally, Iran would focus its economic energy on Eastern Europe and Asia—notably China, India
and Russia. European investor and trade sentiment would be harder hit by US nuclear sanctions than
it would in China, India or Russia, given Europe’s greater financial and diplomatic integration with the
US. These three economies would therefore gradually make up an increasingly large proportion of
Iran’s external economic activity. China, in particular, has growing business interests in Iran and has
highlighted the country as an important part of its Belt and Road Initiative, which attempts to rebuild
ancient Silk Road trade routes linking Asia and Europe. Similarly, India is intent on developing the
International North-South Transport Corridor, which would see goods shipped from India to Iran’s
coast and then transported to Russia and Europe, cutting the time and costs of the current route
through the Suez Canal. Already, Iran is partnering with India to build a deepwater port at Chabahar,
in Iran’s eastern region. In addition to this, both China and India are keen buyers of Iranian energy
products, and are investing heavily in oil and gas infrastructure to secure supplies. In the longer term
this should lead to a significant uptick in Chinese- and Indian-funded infrastructure investments.
Summary
International businesses and investors are increasingly cautious in their policies and strategies that
entail engagement with Iran, which reflects the current confrontational approach to geopolitics in the
Middle East and the threat that the US will take a much tougher line with Iran. Indeed, many appear
intent on waiting for the US to decide whether or not it will stick with the nuclear deal as it is, force
changes to the detriment of Iran or pull out of the JCPOA altogether.
The latter is a significant risk that represents a real threat to Middle Eastern stability, oil market
dynamics and the Iranian economy and political/social scene. The exit of the US from the JCPOA is
by no means certain and other partners to the deal are working hard to find and forge a compromise,
which could bear fruit in the coming weeks. However, a revised deal with significant concessions may
be difficult to secure. This could quickly lead to a scenario whereby the US unilaterally reintroduces a
wide range of sanctions on Iran, and tensions within the region and between Western allies begin to
escalate. Wise businesses and investors are hoping for the best but planning for the worst.
9
© The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited 2018
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