Argentina has ripped across international headlines over the past week following the suspicious death of Prosecutor Alberto Nisman.
Mr. Nisman was found dead from a gunshot wound to the head hours before he was due in Congress to charge President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of having illegal dealings with Iran. His allegations accuse Kirchner and top officials with deep ties to labor unions, social movements, and La Campora of attempting to strike a deal between 2011 and 2013 in which they would export food products to Iran in exchange for importing oil. As part of this deal, the Kirchner government would seek to remove eight Iranian suspects in the AMIA Jewish Community Center bombing from an Interpol arrest list.
The so-called “oil for food” deal never materialized, which Nisman attributes to Foreign Minister Hector Timerman’s inability to persuade Interpol to remove the Iranians from its list.
Mr. Timerman has responded to these allegations by calling them “baseless”, and states that Argentina has never imported oil from Iran as evidence to the fact. He claimed that
“We don’t have too much trade with Iran. In fact it was Iran who placed an embargo against Argentina because of the accusations about their role in the bombing … and that they lifted unilaterally in 2007. But our trade with Iran is very small”
On the Cadena Nacional 26 January 2015, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner claimed unequivocally that Argentina had never imported petroleum from Iran. That’s false.
According to UN Comtrade data, Argentina has imported petroleum oils other than crude from Iran in 1999, 2001, 2005, 2006, and 2013. This includes petroleum products such as waxes, lubricants, and petroleum jelly, and hardly in volumes that indicate the presence of some underlying conspiracy. In 2000 they imported two kilograms of crude, valued at US $102, which could be a reporting error.
While Mr. Timerman’s claim that Argentina has never imported oil is close enough to true, the rest of his statement bears consideration in assessing Nisman’s allegations .
Energy: A Cornerstone of Foreign Policy
Firstly, it is reasonable that Argentina would enter into discussions with foreign powers regarding its domestic energy supply during the specified timeframe of 2011-2013. Access to energy is a cornerstone of the Kirchner administration, and as domestic energy policy increased consumption while decreasing investment, this supply is foreign. Today oil prices are the lowest in a decade, but putting yourself in the mindset of 2011 when oil averaged over US $100 per barrel is critical to understand its importance during this critical period.
In Argentina domestic electricity prices changed very little between 2002 and 2011, when they were frozen to encourage recovery from the 2001 crisis. In 2012, Argentines still paid four times less for electricity than Brazilians- a difference that is subsidized by the national government.
In 2008 Argentina was both the leading producer and consumer of the natural gas in Latin America.
In 2011 Argentina became a net energy importer for the first time since 1984, and spent over US $10 billion on subsidies to the energy industry. The same year total imports of oil and gas reached US $9.4 billion, or approximately 20 percent of the current Central Bank reserves. By 2013 that number was well over US $11 billion and net exports, or imported energy minus exported energy, had reached a whopping negative US $8.35 billion, nearly a third of reserves that year.
Argentina Energy: Net Exports (USD) 2009-2013
The energy crisis spurred the Kirchner government to expropriate and nationalize 51 percent of now-state energy giant YPF from Spain’s Repsol in April 2012, which formerly owned 75 percent of the company. It also caused the government to raise electricity rates by 72 percent for residential customers that do not qualify for the subsidy, and raise the amount exporters can receive per barrel slightly.
In July 2013 Chevron signed a US $1.24 billion agreement with YPF to develop unconventional reserves in the Vaca Muerta. The letter of intent was signed in late 2011, before the expropriation took place.
Argentina continues to heavily subsidize domestic oil production, with an estimated 25 percent of public expenditures going to subsidies, and 60 percent of total subsidies going to the oil sector.
High oil prices, increasing domestic demand, and Argentina’s precarious access to dollars did provide an incentive to initiate talks and consider “oil for food” deals. But the data shows that if these agreements existed, they never came to fruition.
The two nations are indeed trading partners, but neither indispensable to the other based solely on trade volumes.
In 2007 when Iran lifted the embargo, trade not only regained pre-embargo levels but in fact increased more than three-fold.
While the value of exports fell from 2010 to 2011 and then remained constant during the period in question from 2011-2013, Iran’s importance as a destination for Argentina’s exports in fact fell during the period. In terms of rank versus other export destinations, Iran peaked in 2010 at position 11 receiving 2.13 percent of Argentina’s total exports by value.
But if you take a look at Iran’s import data, the numbers do not match up:
Based on the export numbers reported by Argentina and the total annual imports reported by Iran of approximately US $60 billion, Argentina would rank near the number 10 mark for Iran and account for between 1.5 and 3.5 percent of Iran’s total imports. Furthermore, in 2011 close to US $19 billion, or 27 percent, of Iran’s imports came from “non-specified” countries.
China, the second largest source of Iranian imports, is also the second largest destination for Argentine exports. It would be worth the effort to poke around as to whether any of these imports originated in Argentina.
On the energy side though, it is relevant to note that while Argentina is a net energy importer, it is a net crude exporter.
On the Cadena Nacional 26 January 2015, Cristina claimed that Argentina does not import crude oil from Iran because they do not have the facilities to process it. That is also false. Argentina imports the majority of crude oil from neighboring Bolivia with whom it shares a land border and convenient pipeline that supplies Argentine refineries. Argentina’s refineries were currently process Bolivian crude, whose API gravity is roughly 58.8- lighter than Iran’s crude, whose 12 streams are between 33.8 and 25 API gravity. Bolivian crude also has less sulfur. But Argentina produces several crude streams within the same API gravity range as Iran.
For Argentina to process Iranian crude there would have to be some investment to adapt existing refineries to process the higher sulfur levels. Just because current infrastructure cannot process it, does in no way mean talks were never held to consider the possibility. Oil and gas deals take years to formalize, as the infrastructure is not consistent across the industry and it would be fairly ridiculous to build a refinery before securing the source.
Argentina’s most painful energy import is natural gas, which it has never acquired from Iran.
The Data Says Keep Looking
Argentina’s need for imported energy in 2011 warrants taking Nisman’s accusations into account and investigating further. The trade data shows quite clearly that no “oil for food” deal ever came to fruition; however, Argentina is not irrelevant to Iran as a trading partner, especially as Iran has difficult accessing trading partners due to harsh US sanctions against companies doing business with them. Argentina may not need Iranian oil but Iran is benefiting from Argentine food and Argentine willingness to disregard US sanctions.
Furthermore, Iran has promoted its move away from the US dollar in foreign trade transactions. While not directly related, this is on the same wavelength as Argentina’s currency swap with China this year.
An in-depth look at exactly which Argentine firms are exporting to Iran and what currency these trades are settled in might shine some light on the Argentina-Iran relationship from a new angle, which could illuminate the murky negotiations that may have occurred in 2011. Were any proposals for new refineries or adaptations ever solicited and then scrapped?
If Nisman’s alleged negotiations took place, they laid the groundwork for Argentina Iran trade taking place today.