When Iran introduced gasoline rationing in 2007, Ehud Olmert, then Israeli prime minister, said the torching of some Tehran gas stations showed “economic sanctions are working increasingly well.” Threats to blockade Tehran’s gasoline imports brought rebellious Iranians to the streets and the Islamic Republic to its knees. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Since 2007, there have been two more rounds of United Nations sanctions, far tighter United States sanctions and a European Union ban on investment in Iran’s energy sector.
And yet Iran’s nuclear program is further advanced, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is still president and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still the supreme leader.
Iran’s reformists have long pointed out that sanctions strengthen the very people they are supposedly designed to undermine, enhancing the role of the state and its various agencies. US President Barack Obama was elected with a pledge to “engage” Iran, but once in office strengthened the sanctions regime developed under President George W. Bush, on the grounds it may push Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Many Obama supporters say this is the only alternative to military action — hence those who back sanctions need to show they are “working” or come up with new ideas for sanctions that will “work” better.
The saga of gasoline imports shows the pattern all too well. It was fear of sanctions — rather than, say, the chronic air pollution in Tehran — that led Ahmadinejad’s government to introduce gasoline rationing in 2007. Politicians had long dragged their feet over increasing the price of fuel from a subsidized price of 9 cents a liter, despite a consequent demand for gasoline that Iran’s own refineries were unable to supply.
When rationing was introduced in 2007, the allocation of cheap petrol was 100 liters a week, with motorists paying a higher price for any extra. The ration stayed at this level for three years, but was reduced to 80 liters at the beginning of the current Iranian year (in March) and to 60 liters in June, despite the usually higher consumption of the summer holiday period. During the summer, oil minister Masoud Mir-Kazemi put production at 44.5 million liters per day and imports at 20 million liters.
At the time of rationing, consumption was 75 million liters per day and appears to have fallen 14 percent to 64.5 million, while imports — 35 million liters daily back in 2007 — have fallen from 47 percent of consumption to 31 percent. A report in August from the Paris-based International Energy Agency forecast a 75 percent fall in the cost of Iran’s gasoline imports within five years, partly through opening new refineries and curbs in consumption. Incrediblely, the National Iranian Oil Company announced at the end of last month that a sudden 40 percent jump in domestic production had allowed the country to actually begin exporting gasoline, having covered domestic demand.
As production has increased and consumption has fallen, the sources of supply that have made up the difference have also shifted. Oil traders such as Glencore, Trafigura and Vitol, and companies such as Total and Shell began to end gasoline sales earlier this year as talk of sanctions increased. But the gap left by Western companies has been filled by Turkish refiner Tupras and state-owned Chinese companies including Sinopec.
Chinese companies have supplied around half of Iran’s gasoline imports in recent months, and there have even been reports that the Russian oil giant Lukoil, despite its substantial US retail operation, has resumed sales to Iran in a partnership with China’s Zhuhai Zhenrong. All this despite Lloyd’s of London — which has 15 to 20 percent of world marine insurance — announcing in July it would not insure or reinsure gasoline shipments to Iran. Iran’s trading partners and neighbors lack sympathy with the American approach, arguing sanctions should relate solely to Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs. The new UN measures passed in June blocked assets of individuals and entities allegedly involved in proliferation, whereas EU and US sanctions go much further. Washington’s financial sanctions seek to block from the US market not just Iranian businesses but third parties with significant dealings in Iran’s energy and financial sectors.
Widespread resentment at the US approach aids Iran’s search for partners willing to continue or expand trade. As one Iranian economist recently told me: “I actually believe Ahmadinejad likes sanctions. They help make him the underdog, standing up for his country’s rights against a superpower behaving unfairly.”