Iran: Saudis not compensating If Tehran sanctioned
VIENNA—OPEC agreed to keep crude output at a daily 30 million barrels Wednesday but left it up to its 12 members to voluntarily honor that ceiling without overshooting it, reflecting their differences over prices and output.
Ahead of Wednesday's talks, Iran had sought lower production for the cartel, which would raise prices. But it apparently bowed to Saudi Arabia, which wanted to maintain levels and which effectively sets OPEC policy as its largest producer.
Despite the compromise, Saudi-Iranian tensions overshadowed much of the meeting.
The OPEC statement said the target includes Libya, which is increasing production after its civil war ended. Libyan delegates say the country is pumping about 1 million barrels a day and plans to be up to pre-civil war levels of around 1.6 million barrels a day within six months.
Oil prices dropped Wednesday -- apparently less as a reaction to the widely expected deal and more due to continued concerns about the European Union's debt crisis.
Benchmark crude fell $4.30, or 4.4 percent, to $95.84 per barrel in midmorning trading in New York. Prices haven't been that low since Nov. 25.
The statement from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries said members had agreed to voluntarily lower production "to ensure market balance and reasonable prices," should future world supply exceed demand.
But by leaving it up to members to cut back on output if needed, the organization effectively acknowledged that it had given up efforts to act as a unified regulator of the oil market. The 30-million figure already represents overproduction of 11 percent from targets agreed to three years ago, the last time OPEC set production quotas on individual nations.
OPEC Secretary General Abdullah Al-Badri said new quotas would be discussed at the next OPEC meeting in June, once Libya was producing at full strength.
Wednesday's decision should appease price hawks Iran and its allies and price doves Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf nations and avoids a repeat of OPEC's last abortive talks in June, when oil ministers disagreed publicly on how much oil to sell. Saudi Arabia labeled that the worst OPEC meeting ever. This time, they were keen to paper over the divisions.
The outcome is "good for OPEC, good for the Saudis, good for the market, and the Iranians are happy as well," said analyst John Hall, addressing the different needs of the players in Vienna -- the OPEC need for unity, Saudi claim to OPEC primacy, a message to consumers that output will be stable and a signal of success to Iran, which presided over the talks.
Al-Badri lauded "the spirit of cooperation in OPEC which I could say we lost in the last meeting."
"But this meeting brought us all together. and we had a very fruitful meeting."
Going into their closed-door talks, Iranian oil Minister Rostam Ghasemi said he had met with Saudi counterpart Ali Naimi and gained a pledge that the Saudis would refrain from flooding the market with extra oil in case an international embargo on Iranian crude hurt Tehran's ability to sell its petroleum.
The U.S. is reportedly seeking Saudi assurances that they are ready to make up for Iranian crude lost from the market should increased international sanctions be imposed on Tehran's crude. Ghasemi said he spoke to Naimi and Naimi "rejects" the notion "that he wants to replace Iranian crude if Iran faces (such) sanctions."
Naimi was circumspect, dismissing the issue as "speculative."
Relations between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran have been traditionally cool as the two countries vie for regional influence and were additionally burdened in recent years over concerns Tehran may be working to make nuclear arms. Recent U.S. allegations of Iranian involvement in an alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington have deepened the chill.
Tehran has denied the allegations and is seeking to mend fences. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast revealed Wednesday that Iran's intelligence chief visited Saudi Arabia. Iran is moving to refute U.S. claims over its alleged attempts to make nuclear weapons and convince Saudi Arabia that Washington and Israel are seeking to sow seeds of discord between them.
Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi was reported to have met the Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdel-Aziz Al Saud during the Tuesday visit. The prince is also the kingdom's interior minister.
In Vienna, Ghasemi said any move to sanction Iran's oil and refining industries -- as contemplated by the European Union -- "is not a very wise decision."
Saudi Arabia, OPEC's powerhouse, is already producing about 10 million barrels a day, upping its output by a daily 1.3 million barrels to account for about a third of OPEC's present output. It is the only OPEC nation with such spare capacity -- and could bridge temporary disruptions caused by any embargo on oil from Iran, which is now producing about 2.6 million barrels a day.
Jason Schenker, president of Prestige Economics, noted, however, that any embargo would not reduce the amount of oil on the market.
"If the Iranians can't sell to the Europeans, they sell it to China," he said. "Someone will buy that oil."
Maggie Childs contributed to this report.