Iranian fuel and petrochemical exports have boomed in recent years despite stringent US sanctions, leaving Iran well placed to expand sales swiftly in Asia and Europe if Washington lifts its curbs, trading sources and officials said.
The US imposed sanctions on Iran’s oil and gas industry in 2018 to choke off the Islamic Republic’s main source of revenues in a dispute with Tehran over its nuclear work.
The steps crippled crude exports but not sales of fuel and petrochemicals, which are more difficult to trace. Crude can be identified as Iranian by its grade and other features, while big oil tankers are more easily tracked via satellite.
Iran exported petrochemicals and petroleum products worth almost $20 billion in 2020, twice the value of its crude exports, oil ministry and central bank figures show. The government said in April they were its main source of revenues.
“The world is vast and the ways of evading sanctions are endless,” Hamid Hosseini, board member of Iran’s Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Products Exporters’ Union in Tehran, told Reuters.
Competitive prices and Iran’s location, close to major shipping lanes, made its products attractive, he said.
There are also many more buyers of refined products than importers with refineries configured to process Iranian crude.
In addition, Iran exports some fuel by trucks to its neighbors, which involve small transactions that are tough for the US Treasury to detect.
Tehran has been in talks since April to revive its nuclear pact with six world powers, after the US under President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and ratcheted up sanctions.
Iran says it will only restrict its nuclear work under the pact if US sanctions are scrapped.