India is thinking of importing more oil from Iran than it currently does. In a letter to the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, oil minister Veerapa Moily, suggested that “An additional import of 11 million tonnes during 2013/14 would result in reduction in forex outflow by $8.47 billion (considering the international price of crude oil at $105 per barrel).” (As reported by Reuters).
This is because Iran accepts payments in rupees and not dollars as is the case with most of the other oil exporters. This will help India save precious foreign exchange.
While theoretically this idea makes immense sense, it is not really a solution that India will be able to execute. The United States and the European Union have placed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear programme. As Reuters reports “U.S. and EU sanctions placed on Iran over its nuclear programme have reduced its oil exports more than half from pre-sanction levels of about 2.2 million barrels per day (bpd). In the first half of 2013, imports of Iranian oil from its four biggest buyers – China, India, Japan and South Korea – fell more than a fifth from a year ago to around 960,000 bpd.”
India’s oil imports from Iran have declined by 46% to 185,700 barrels per day during the first seven months of the year, in comparison to the same period last year. And this is because of the sanctions.
Oil is bought and sold internationally in dollars. This started sometime after the Second World War. President Franklin D Roosevelt realised that a regular supply of oil was very important for the well being of America or what came to be known as the great “American dream”.
After the end of the Second World War Roosevelt travelled quietly to USS Quincy, a ship anchored in the Red Sea. Here he was met by King Ibn Sa’ud of Saudi Arabia, a country, which was by then home to the biggest oil reserves in the world.
The obsession of the Untied States with the automobile had led to a swift decline in domestic reserves, even though America was the biggest producer of oil in the world at that point of time. The country needed to secure another source of assured supply of oil. So in return for access to oil reserves of Saudi Arabia, King Ibn Sa’ud was promised full American military support to the ruling clan of Sa’ud. This oil was sold in dollars.
This was one of the major reasons behind the dollar becoming the international reserve currency. Every country in the world needed oil. And for countries that did not produce enough of their own oil they needed dollars they could use to buy oil from other countries.
This continued till the 1970s. In the seventies, after the end of the gold standard, the dollar started to lose value rapidly against other currencies and against gold. This meant that the purchasing power of the OPEC countries which sold oil in dollars and then used those dollars to import goods they did not produce, came down dramatically.
As William Greider writes in Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country “The dollar had already lost one-third of its value in only half a dozen years and seemed headed toward even steeper decline… Oil trades worldwide in dollars and if the U.S. was going to permit a free fall in the dollar’s value, that meant the oil-producing nations would received less and less real value for their commodity.”
One impact of this was OPEC countries raising the price of oil. Another impact was that some of the OPEC countries wanted to price oil in several currencies rather than just the American dollar. Jahangir Amuzegar, who was an economist by training, and had been a minister in the government of Iran, as well as a negotiator for OPEC, outlined some of these proposals in a 1978 article. In this article he outlined several currency combinations that could be used to price oil. Iraq, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Venezuela were in support of this plan.
The idea was not to be dependent on one currency, but a number of currencies and hence iron out any fluctuations in the value of one currency. Moving to a basket of currencies at that point of time clearly made sense for OPEC as far as future revenues were concerned.
As per estimates of the US department of treasury, Saudi Arabia, the largest member of OPEC, would have been better off if it had priced oil in a basket of currencies instead of the dollar, in all but 18 months since 1973.
So what was stopping Saudi Arabia and OPEC from moving to pricing oil in a basket of currencies rather than the dollar? As David E Spiro writes in The Hidden Hand of American Hegemony: Petrodollar Recycling and International Markets: “The Saudis, however, had the greatest proportion of dollar-denominated reserves in OPEC. This means that their reserves were diminished by the depreciation of the dollar (compared to the basket of their imports). But it also meant that they had the most to lose if a shift by OPEC to a basket of currencies threatened international confidence in the dollar. Having agreed to invest so much in dollars, the Saudis now shared a stake in maintaining the dollar as an international reserve currency. On the one hand dollars constituted 90% of Saudi government revenues in 1979, and those revenues were subject to the same fluctuations as the dollar. On the other hand, the Saudi investments were, roughly at same time 83% dollar denominated. The choice was whether to stabilise current revenues threatening the worth of all the past revenues (since invested in dollar assets).”
Also, as mentioned earlier, Roosevelt had stuck a deal with the ruling clan of Al Sa’uds. It is important to remember that the American security guarantee made by President Roosevelt after the Second World War was extended not to the people of Saudia Arabia nor to the government of Saudi Arabia but to the ruling clan of Al Sa’uds. So they had an intrest in selling oil in dollars and keeping the dollar going as an international reserve currency.
Also other than being the largest producer of oil Saudi Arabia also had the largest reserves among all OPEC countries. It had 39% of the proven OPEC reserves. Within OPEC it had the almost unquestioned support of what were known as the sheikhdom states of Bahrain, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar. These countries faced threats from other OPEC members like Iraq and Iran. For many years, Iraq had been eyeing Kuwait. It had tried to annex Kuwait in 1961 (and then again in the early 1990s).
Hence, the support of Saudi Arabia, the largest nation in the region, was important for them. If we added the reserves and production of the sheikdom countries which supported Saudi Arabia, they were together responsible for 50% of OPEC’s production and owned nearly 61% of its proven reserves. So, when Saudi Arabia made the decision that OPEC oil would be continued to be priced in dollars, there wasn’t much option for the other OPEC members but to follow what the largest member had decided.
What this brief history of oil tells us is that for dollar to continue being an international reserve currency, it is very important that oil continues to be sold in dollars. Other countries need to earn these dollars whereas the United States has the exorbitant privelege of simply printing them and spending them.
Iran has been trying to challenge this hegemoney of the dollar for a while now. It has been trying to move the buying and selling of oil away from the US dollar. In late 2007, Iran claimed to have moved all of its oil sales to non dollar currencies, with most of it being sold in euros and a small part in yen. There were no independent reports confirming the same.
The United States and Iran have been at each other’s throats since the 1979 revolution in Iran which overthrew the King. Lately there has been tension because of Iran’s nuclear programme.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was the President of Iran till around a month back, has called the dollar “a worthless piece of paper”. News reports suggest that Iran has started accepting renminbi from China and rubles from Russia in lieu of the oil that it exports to these countries.
In fact in a November 2007, summit of OPEC, Iran had suggested that OPEC oil should be sold in a basket of currencies rather than the American dollar. But it did not get the support of other members except Venezuela. Hugo Chavez, the late President of Venezuela, was known to be a vocal critic of the United States.
On February 17,2008, Iran set up the Iranian Oil Bourse, for the trading of petroleum, petrochemicals and natural gas, in currencies other than dollar, primarily the euro and the Iranian rial. But the exchange since inception has not traded in oil but products made out of oil which are used as a feedstock in pharmaceutical and plastic industries.
Reports in the Iranian press suggested that the bourse started trading oil in non dollar currencies from March 20,2012. India wanted to pay for Iranian oil, either in gold or in rupees. If India paid in rupees, Iran could use those rupees to import goods from India.
This move to pay for oil in rupees or gold was a clear attempt to undermine the dollar in the buying and selling of oil, something that keeps the dollar at the heart of the international financial system. Hence, great pressure was applied by America on India to stop its oil imports from Iran and source its needs from some other producer.
India’s oil imports from Iran in April 2012 fell by 34.2% to 269,000 barrels per day from 409,000 barrels per day in March 2012. The government of India asked the Indian oil refiners to cut Iranian oil imports and they obliged.
What this tells us in a very clear way is that even though the US dollar may not be in the best of shape, but any attempts to mess around with its international ‘currency’ status will not be taken lying down. And for dollar to maintain its international currency status it is important that oil continues to be bought and sold in dollars.
So if the United States could pressurise India into cutting down its oil purchases from Iran in March 2012, it can do the same in September 2013. Any move away from dollar , which in turn will undermine access to “easy money” which has been so important to what is now called the American way of life.
Also it is best to remember that financially America might be in a mess, but by and large it still remains the only superpower in the world. In 2010, the United States spent $698billion on defence. This was 43% of the global total.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 2, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)