NEW YORK — Iran's announcement this week that it expects to increase oil exports and discuss new deals with energy companies is the latest salvo in a debate over easing economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
A six-month agreement struck last month among Iran and six world powers lifts some trade sanctions on Iran in exchange for the Islamic Republic curtailing its disputed nuclear program, with the aim of reaching a comprehensive agreement next year.
While the sanctions on oil and banking remain, the six countries that still import Iranian oil — China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Turkey — will be allowed to continue buying at current levels instead of making further cuts.
"I hope we gradually increase our exports based on the agreement," though "at this stage, we have no change in our export officially," Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Iran's minister of petroleum, told reporters in Vienna Tuesday, ahead of a meeting today of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Zanganeh said Iran hopes eventually to resume its previous production and export levels, and will hold talks with international companies this week in Vienna on developing its energy industry.
Once OPEC's second-largest producer, Iran has been knocked down to sixth place in the 12-nation organization, with output averaging 2.6 million barrels a day last month, compared with 3.6 million at the end of 2011, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Iranian exports have fallen by half since oil sanctions took effect in July 2012, costing Iran between $3 billion and $5 billion a month in lost revenue, according to U.S. Treasury statistics.
Zanganeh's appeal to OPEC to "not fight" Iran's return to its higher production levels -- perhaps allowing it to reclaim its No. 2 spot — will add fuel to arguments in the United States and Israel over the wisdom of partially easing sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Iran could boost oil production to 4 million barrels a day next year if the sanctions are lifted, the Iranian oil minister said. Iran currently is exporting about 1.2 million barrels a day, and has earmarked 1.5 million barrels of daily sales in its budget, including 300,000 barrels of condensates.
Talks with oil companies on exploration terms and conditions will take place in Tehran and London in early 2014, Zanganeh said, without specifying which firms might participate. While there's no ban on companies having conversations with Iran, energy investments remain sanctioned. Major companies, including Britain's Royal Dutch Shell and BP and France's Total, have had partnerships with Iran.
The United States and the five other nations at the talks last month in Geneva say continuing the sanctions will help pressure Iran to make concessions about its nuclear program, and aren't an effort to destroy its economy or overthrow its Islamic regime. The trade bans, U.S. and EU officials say, have done their job by forcing Iran to agree to the first negotiated accord after a decade-long deadlock.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. lawmakers and pressure groups that advocate tougher sanctions say world powers shouldn't have eased any sanctions until Iran abandoned its nuclear program. By caving in too early, the U.S. and its negotiating partners — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — have given Iran more leverage going into further talks, sanctions advocates say.
Iran may be in unlikely agreement with Netanyahu on one point: that even a partial easing of the sanctions paves the way for businesses to rush back into Iran. Netanyahu this week complained in Rome that there's an appearance of "a general relaxation of sanctions and a rush to accommodate Iran and make it legitimate" in the business arena.
The U.S. disputes this, saying the most punishing sanctions on oil and banking remain and will be vigorously enforced until a final accord is reached.
"My message to the international business community, the international financial community, is that it is not open season now for business in Iran," U.S. Undersecretary of Treasury David Cohen told Bloomberg Television last week. "We're going to enforce the existing sanctions very vigorously."
A telephone poll of 800 U.S. voters conducted by Hart Research Associates and released Tuesday found that 63 percent approved of the deal, while 24 percent opposed it. Those who described themselves as "strongly pro-Israel" backed the deal by a margin of 48 percent to 40 percent, according to the poll, commissioned by Americans United for Change, which said the results argue against imposing additional sanctions now.
Fifty-eight percent of those polled said they want to give the negotiations a chance before Congress does anything that might undermine them, including imposing new sanctions. Only 31 percent said they'd support their member of Congress seeking more sanctions now, even if Iran might use them as an excuse to terminate the interim accord. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The accord reached Nov. 24 in Geneva pledges a halt in new sanctions while negotiations continue, which depends on the Obama administration fending off congressional pressure. Sanctions advocates in the Senate say a vote could happen as early as next week to impose new penalties to take effect in six months if no final accord is reached.