Iran is exporting more oil than it did last year, and in greater amounts than the limit the United States placed on exports under the on-going negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, according to the latest oil market data.
But conflicting and complicated data about oil sales make it hard to present black-and-white arguments about whether the limited relief given to Iran as part of the nuclear negotiations agreed last November is providing a lifeline to Tehran or not. Iran hawks point to rising oil exports to argue that the United States is giving away negotiating leverage; the Obama administration says it is comfortable with Iran's current exports and is focused on the six-month talks.
The latest data come just ahead of the next round of high-level talks between Iran and six major powers, slated for next week in Vienna. Friday's monthly oil market report by the International Energy Agency shows Iranian oil exports reaching a one-year peak of about 1.4 million barrels a day in February, up from 1.1 million barrels a day in 2013. The Obama administration said it aims to limit Iranian oil exports to about 1 million barrels a day under the limited sanctions relief agreed to as part of the nuclear negotiations.
The problem is that monthly oil-market data fluctuate sharply and are constantly revised, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the strength of Iran's oil sector or U.S. efforts to rein it in. Critics who fear that sanctions relief is easing the economic stranglehold on Tehran point to oil sales as a worrisome indicator.
"The increase in Iranian oil exports is further evidence that countries may now be more willing to test the will of the Obama administration in enforcing oil sanctions," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a group that has spearheaded efforts in Washington to tighten economic pressure on Iran. A Senate bill that would ratchet up sanctions against Iran has not yet come to the floor and isn't likely to, given a near-certain White House veto.
"State and Treasury officials have their work cut out for them between now and July to prevent Tehran from driving an oil tanker through the sanctions regime," Dubowitz added. Since November, U.S. officials say they have been doing precisely that, meeting with the small number of countries that are entitled to import Iranian oil and pressing them to keep their imports in the first half of this year at 2013 levels.