BP has opted out of the first wave of agreements to develop oil and gas reserves in Iran after the lifting of international sanctions — setting it apart from its two biggest European rivals Royal Dutch Shell and Total.
Iran has struck a series of deals with foreign energy groups in recent weeks, including Total and Shell, and plans to award more contracts early in 2017 as Tehran’s efforts to attract much-needed foreign investment gather pace.
However, BP, which has its corporate roots in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company responsible for the first Iranian oil discovery in 1908, is taking a more cautious approach ahead of a Donald Trump presidency which threatens renewed diplomatic tensions with Tehran.
BP has not applied to take part in a forthcoming tender of exploration and production rights in Iran, according to people briefed on the matter, and has no immediate plans for separate agreements of the kind reached by Shell and Total.
These people said the main reason was commercial. “It’s a question of where the best returns on investment can be made and BP has plenty of attractive opportunities elsewhere,” said one.
However, these people acknowledged the continued existence of some US sanctions against Iran — and the prospects of a hardline stance against Tehran by the Trump administration — was a particular deterrent for BP.
Although based in the UK, BP has the biggest US exposure of any European oil group; about 40 per cent of its shareholders and 30 per cent of its employees are American, including Bob Dudley, chief executive.
US citizens are barred from commercial activities in Iran under Washington’s bilateral sanctions against Tehran. BP would have to set up a separate governance structure, excluding Mr Dudley and other US executives, to oversee any investments in Iran, according to people briefed on the matter. US energy groups such as ExxonMobil and Chevron have so far remained on the sidelines as Iran has opened up.
BP has made some tentative steps to rebuild ties with Iran — including the reopening of an office in Tehran and the acquisition of a cargo of Iranian oil in October — but more slowly than non-US rivals. A BP spokesman declined to comment.
Iran has the world’s second-largest gas reserves and fourth-largest oil reserves, according to the US Energy Information Administration, but urgently needs outside capital and expertise to modernise its ageing infrastructure.
The country aims to attract $200bn of oil and gas investment over the next five years, after the 2015 agreement with the world’s major powers to curb its nuclear programme led to the lifting of international sanctions.
Total of France became the first western oil major to make a renewed commitment when it signed a deal in November to develop the next phase of Iran’s giant South Pars gasfield together with China National Petroleum Corp.
UK-listed Shell followed earlier last month with a more tentative agreement for studies of the Azadegan and Yadavaran oilfields in south-west Iran as well as the Kish gasfields in the Gulf.
Other companies to have struck agreements with Tehran last year include Gazprom, Rosneft and Lukoil of Russia, ONGC of India and DNO of Norway. Iran has said dozens more applied to take part in a licensing round for up to 50 exploration and production blocs due to take place early in 2017.
Jason Rosychuk, a Dubai-based oil and gas specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm, said that, after a slow start, Tehran’s investment drive was gaining momentum. “The level of interest is high,” he said. “All companies are taking a look.”
Tehran has been racing to seal deals before Barack Obama steps down as US president this month. It remains unclear whether Mr Trump will follow through on his campaign trail promise to rip up the nuclear deal which Mr Obama orchestrated, but a renewed downturn in US-Iranian relations looks likely.
Rex Tillerson, the former ExxonMobil chief executive nominated by Mr Trump to become secretary of state, will have a big role in policymaking on Iran if his appointment is approved by the US Senate.
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