Foreign Policy Blogs

A Public Private Partnership for Iran’s New Petroleum Contract?

Photo By Abdolreza Mohseni

Photo By Abdolreza Mohseni

Iran will present its new oil contracts during a scheduled conference in February 2016 in Tehran. By 2020, the country hopes to increase crude production to about 6 million barrels per day (bpd), an increase compared to levels produced before the sanctions imposed by the West in response to its nuclear program.

But Tehran will probably need much more time to achieve this desired level of production. To develop new oil fields and ensure better infrastructure, Iran needs an additional $100 billion in financing from foreign investors. And while lifting sanctions will open up possibilities for external financing, the country also needs international oil companies to establish activities on Iranian soil. This could be a challenge, as binding regulations have historically made it difficult for energy companies to operate in Iran.

The lifting of sanctions brought the oil price down: Iran is the second largest producer, behind Saudi Arabia for conventional oil, and is fourth behind Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada if we include unconventional crude. Beyond the impact of lifted sanctions, the slowdown in global growth, the strength of the U.S. shale industry and the global glut of oil supply (a surplus estimated at one million bpd) continue to fuel the downward spiral of the market.

Can a Public Private Partnership (PPP) provide the solution for the financing of energy infrastructure projects, at a time when Iran is facing declining revenues as a result of years of crippling sanctions? Iran’s new contract model is designed to gain the interest of international oil companies to participate in joint venture projects. Under the new Iranian Petroleum Contract, a foreign company would have several years to explore and develop deposits followed by 10 to 15 years of production rights. Meanwhile, the Iranian state oil company, The National Iranian Oil Co., would compensate the foreign company depending on the deposit, production volumes and oil prices.

Iran needs to consider a PPP and a legislative framework that would give more flexibility than the current contract in place.

Investments in the Energy Infrastructure

The introduction of a PPP in the new Iranian Petroleum Contract (IPC), would also allow the private sector to supply public services and infrastructure in the energy sector—both fundamental to the development and growth of Iran. The current oil price, which is at a record low, presents an excellent opportunity to create and maintain oil fields and, consequently, provides some scope for private and public sector. Crucially, it would allow the country to address its battered infrastructure, which have suffered from crippling sanctions and chronic underinvestment.

If companies are reviewing their budget in the development and exploitation of deposits, they have a chance to regain some of that capital through oil sales. If a project is technologically more difficult, it might gain higher income. So even if it requires more investment, it will yield greater returns. Investors will also be engaged in projects over a longer period, which should encourage greater production.

Management is key in the energy sector—partnering private and public actors will prove effective for improving service delivery. Reducing costs and time of executing projects is a priority in a very volatile market. The private sector has the ability to implement project within time and budget and eliminate cost overrun due to delays, a significant financial incentive.

The aim is not to prioritize the private sector but to balance risks in both sector associated with their own duties. This type of partnership mobilizes all the human and financial resources (public, private, international) and thus avoid costly disruptions in public investment programs, during periods of recession and budget cuts.

The PPPs are not a solution to a budget crisis led by its sanctions or simply low oil prices. But as a mean to optimize resources, PPPs are a contractual arrangement over the long term by which the public sector transfers to the private sector all or part of conception, financing, operation and maintenance responsibilities. Contrary to conventional wisdom, PPPs contracts enable government to determine the tariffs for users, standard levels to be achieved and met. The Iranian government will still be involved in the supervision of the PPP contract and ensure that public service objectives are met.

While Iran has huge economic and human resources, improving the economic situation will depend heavily on political reforms and major economic changes. The ideological nature of Iran’s system makes it difficult to bet on political and economic reforms capabilities.

A Competitive Edge for Iran?

Iran is at present estimated to hold about 157 billion barrels or 9.3% of world reserves. In comparison, Iraq has 150 billion and Saudi Arabia almost 266 billion barrels. Iranian production in late 2013 was 3.558 million bpd against 3.751 million bpd a year earlier, a 6% decrease relative to 2011. Iranian crude oil is light, with a low extraction cost. However Iranian deposits have low recovery rates (between 20 and 25%), which require investment and the injection of more gas into the wells.

 The new Iranian Petroleum Contract could potentially give an advantage to Iran over its competitors in terms of attracting new investments. If we look at it by sector, the most prominent one to benefit from such a partnership would clearly be Iran’s energy industry. The U.S. and other foreign investment in Iran’s energy sector should grow rapidly, allowing Iran to develop its production capacity and export oil, gas and petrochemicals.

Several international oil companies have already shown interest in the new contracts. Royal Dutch/Shell, Total and Eni were in Tehran during the last three months to discuss investment opportunities through the so-called ‘special conditions contracts’ to reserve ownership for exploration and development.

Immediately after the lifting of sanctions, European companies will probably be the first to invest. They have the most recent experience of doing business with Iran and will be less constrained by their own governments. It is common to see international players parterning with local businesses who have a good knowledge of the terrain.

Attracting Investors

Low oil price may have been the catalyst for the promulgation of PPPs. Iran’s new Petroleum Contract will be able to invite private companies and international investors to finance and operate energy assets at an attractive price. It will be interesting to watch the development of PPPs in Iran and evolution in the current volatile market as confidence will progressively build through an increase in the quality and quantity of projects coming in line.

To be viable in terms of attracting foreign investment, the new IPC should include four key things: appropriate risk allocation, a sound financial package, reliable concessionaire consortium and favorable investment environment. In order to do so, energy projects should be aligned with both public and private parties and ensure the appropriate management structures and procedure to obtain application of those four core aspects.

The success of the new Iranian Petroleum Contract model also depends on the specific fiscal terms of the agreement, which have not yet been finalized or announced. And even if Iran really managed to sign new contracts with foreign energy companies, these companies will still face major obstacles when it comes to actually investing, operating and advancing these contracts.

Iran can eventually return to production levels it had before the sanctions, but it will probably take much longer than the ‘immediate effect’ promised. Ultimately, fiscal terms that Iran will offer to foreign energy companies under its new contract model might be appealing enough to overcome the significant challenges that come with operating in the country.

In these partnerships, private companies can offer innovative design, project management skills and risk management expertise. A PPP IPC will require the private agent to take full responsibility for the performance of the asset over a long term, so that efficiencies arising from long term investment and asset management could be realized.

A diversified service can be adopted through these contractual relationships: concession contracts, lease-develop-operate, and build-operate-transfer among others. A collaboration between public and private sector for the purpose of delivering a project traditionally provided by the public sector.

The sole challenge will be to find the right balance between private sector capacity, government regulatory function and public satisfaction. Adding the political and social obstacles that will come through different phases of projects, the lack of legal framework and the rising of tariff to cover the costs of projects may face some important challenges. This new financing model will allow the presence of foreign investors in projects but in an operational and reasonable manner.

Only time will tell, but there are efforts being made to attract international investors in Iran. Future work is clearly needed before a PPP can be added to Iran’s economic model in a satisfactory manner. Partnership, if precisely planned and structured, can be a powerful tool not only to keep public company viable but also to address cost and investment challenges, improve efficiency and service quality, increase expertise, attract more rapid and substantial investments in infrastructure and new energy technologies.



Patricia Schouker

Patricia is an experienced energy analyst and an Associate Member of New College at Oxford University as well as a Non-Resident Fellow at the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines.

She has extensive experience in global energy market studies, energy security and political risk with a special focus on Europe, the United States and Russia. Patricia was recently selected as one of the top 40 most influential individuals in the energy sector by Right Relevance Inc., in San Francisco California and a top 50 female influencer in blockchain and cyber security by Onalytica in London. 

Patricia worked at Le Figaro Newspaper in Paris and was a parliamentary assistant and attaché at The French National Assembly. While working for a petrochemical company, she wrote her thesis on U.S Foreign Policy towards Terrorism after 9/11 focusing on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

As a member of Chatham House, she has led several research projects in the areas of energy security and emerging threats in critical energy infrastructure as well as policy and risk assessments of European and Russian oil and gas systems. 

She has collaborated with various academic institutions, think tanks, embassies and the European institutions on European energy market, the geopolitics of energy and investment patterns. 

She has published for the National Interest, Pipeline Oil and Gas Magazine in Dubai, Oxford Politics and International Relations Departments as well as the Foreign Policy Association in NY. She is a frequent contributor to international media on energy security and international economic issues. 

Patricia studied law, international relations and security in Paris, London, Geneva and Washington D.C. She completed a course certificate on sustainability and environmental management at Harvard University. 

Follow her on Twitter: @Patricia_Energy