Russia and Iran are building the foundation for a potential natural gas cartel.
The Russia-Iran alliance aims to control as much of the two key elements in the global supply matrix as possible.
“Gas is widely seen as the optimal product in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, so controlling as much of the global flow of that will be the key to energy-based power over the next ten to twenty years”, according to a senior source who works closely with Iran’s Petroleum Ministry.
The US$40 billion memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed last month between Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC) is a stepping stone to enabling Russia and Iran to implement their long-held plan to be the core participants in a global cartel for gas suppliers in the same mold as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for oil suppliers. With a foundation in the current Gulf Exporting Countries Forum (GECF), this ‘Gas OPEC’ would allow for the coordination of an extraordinary proportion of the world’s gas reserves and control over gas prices in the coming years. Occupying the number one and number two positions in the world’s largest gas reserves table, respectively – Russia with just under 48 trillion cubic meters (tcm) and Iran with nearly 34 tcm – the two countries are in an ideal position to do this.
The Russia-Iran alliance, as evidenced in the most recent multi-faceted MoU between Gazprom and the NIOC, wants to control as much of the two key elements in the global supply matrix – gas supplied over land via pipelines and gas supplied via ships in liquefied natural gas (LNG) – as possible. According to a statement last week from Hamid Hosseini, chairman of Iran’s Oil, Gas, and Petrochemical Products Exporters’ Union, in Tehran, after the Gazprom-NIOC MoU had been signed: “Now the Russians have come to the conclusion that the consumption of gas in the world will increase and the tendency towards consumption of LNG has increased and they alone are not able to meet the world’s demand, so there is no room left for gas competition [between Russia and Iran].” He added: “The winner of the Russia-Ukraine war is the United States, and it will capture the European market, so if Iran and Russia can reduce the influence of the United States in the oil, gas and product markets by working together, it will benefit both countries.”
The Gazprom-NIOC MoU, as initially analyzed by OilPrice.com, contains four key elements that are geared towards the build-out of a ‘Gas OPEC’.
One element is that the Russian state-backed gas giant has pledged its full assistance to the NIOC in the US$10 billion development of the Kish and North Pars gas fields with a view to the two fields producing more than 10 million cubic meters of gas per day.
A second element is that Gazprom will also fully assist with a US$15 billion project to increase pressure in the supergiant South Pars gas field on the maritime border between Iran and Qatar.
A third element is that Gazprom will provide full assistance in the completion of various liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects and the construction of gas export pipelines.
The fourth element is that Russia will examine all opportunities to encourage other major gas powers in the Middle East to join in the gradual roll-out of the ‘Gas OPEC’ cartel, according to a senior source who works closely with Iran’s Petroleum Ministry. “Gas is widely seen as the optimal product in the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, so controlling as much of the global flow of that will be the key to energy-based power over the next ten to twenty years, as has already been seen on a smaller scale in Russia’s hold over Europe through its gas supplies,” he added.
From a top-down perspective, the Russia-Iran alliance is focused on drawing in the overt or covert support for the Gas OPEC construct from other major producers in the Middle East regarded as undecided in committing to the Russia-Iran-China axis or to the U.S.-Europe-Japan axis. Qatar (with the world’s third-largest gas reserves of just under 24 tcm, and the top LNG supplier) has long been seen by Russia and Iran as a prime candidate for such a gas cartel, given that it shares the principal source of its ongoing prosperity with Iran in the shape of the 9,700 square kilometres (sq.km) reservoir that holds at least a combined 51 tcm of gas and 50 billion barrels of natural condensates. Iran has exclusive rights over 3,700 sq.km of this reservoir in its celebrated South Pars field (containing around 14 tcm of gas), with Qatar’s North Field comprising the remaining 6,000 sq.km (and 37 tcm of gas).
A new cooperation accord was reached between Tehran and Doha in 2017 on the shared reservoir and beyond, as analyzed in depth in my latest book on the global oil markets. Since then, Qatar has overtly tried to avoid alienating either of the major two geopolitical power blocs. At the beginning of this year of Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, visited the White House, and in March he met with German economy minister, Robert Habeck, the latter visit being to discuss how Qatar could help alleviate bans on Russian gas into Europe. Prior to these visits, though, Qatar concluded a slew of long-term LNG supply deals with China that caused considerable concern in Washington (hence the visit of Al Thani to the U.S. in January).
Over and above the need for a good relationship between Qatar and Iran to ensure the optimal functioning of their huge joint gas reservoir, Russia and Iran see another area of particular vulnerability in Doha’s political makeup that can be exploited in the building out of a Gas OPEC, and that is its dislike for its other neighbor, Saudi Arabia. The blockade of Qatar from 2017 to 2021 was orchestrated by Saudi Arabia and actively endorsed by the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt initially, with later support coming from Jordan, Libya, and other smaller states. It has never been forgotten by Qatar, and nor has the support that was given to Doha during the period by Iran, and by Russia, both independently and via Turkey.
Together, Russia, Iran, and Qatar account for just under 60 percent of the world’s gas reserves, and they were the three countries instrumental in the founding of the GECF, whose 11 members control over 71 percent of global gas reserves, 44 percent of its marketed production, 53 percent of its gas pipelines, and 57 percent of its LNG exports. Its long-term mission statement agreed upon in Moscow, is to: ‘Enhance the role of GECF in the global energy scene in order to support the sovereign rights of Member Countries over their natural gas resources, to maximize their value for the benefit of their people, and to promote their coordination on global energy developments with a view to contributing to global sustainable development and energy security’.
There have long been statements on plans to enhance the depth of cooperation between GECF members to the degree that it becomes as powerful in the gas market as OPEC once was (before the 2014-2016 Oil Price War was instigated against the U.S. shale oil sector and lost by Saudi Arabia). As far back as October 2008, high-level figures from Russia, Iran, and Qatar met in Tehran to discuss trilateral cooperation and the possibility of forming a cartel of gas-exporting countries similar to OPEC. A key part of the reason why the idea has not been fully realized has been the unwillingness on the part of Qatar to firmly align itself to the Russia-Iran alliance, which means that the swing supply part of the gas supply matrix – LNG – had remained outside the control Moscow and Tehran. It is true that Iran has sufficient gas resources to eventually become an LNG superpower, and part of the Gazprom-NIOC deal is geared towards making that happen, but it is also true that this is a medium- to long-term project.
Shorter-term, though, there are signs that Qatar’s reticence to commit to Gas OPEC may be ebbing away. The critical feature of Doha’s economic plans is for it to stay as the number one exporter of LNG in the world, having lost that spot for a period relatively recently, and in this context, the long-term deals with China are enormously important to it. The early notable example – that set a template for subsequent deals – was the long-term purchase and sales agreement by the China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. (Sinopec) and Qatar Petroleum for 2 million tons per annum (mtpa) of LNG for a term of 10 years. Following these early deals with China, Qatar signed LNG supply agreements with Iranian (and Chinese and Russian) ally, Pakistan – specifically, a 10-year sale and purchase agreement for Qatar Petroleum to supply the Pakistan State Oil Company with up to 3 mtpa of LNG to various ports in the country. This agreement builds on the earlier deal signed in 2016 for Qatar to supply Pakistan with 3.75 mtpa of LNG and came at around the same time as close Pakistan ally, Bangladesh, made a similar deal with Qatar.