EghtesadOnline: After an edgy 2015, marked by the historic nuclear agreement signed between Iran and the six world powers, Tehran hit the ground running last year as the nuclear deal came into force in mid-January.
The perfect start to the year raised the prospect of an economic shake-up, fueling hopes for signing a flurry of deals in the industrial and energy sectors with multinationals. From playing a central role in an OPEC accord to cut crude supplies to efforts to seal oil and gas development agreements, Tehran put behind an eventful year with the promise of higher oil revenues and new multibillion-dollar deals in its key energy industry in 2017.
Here is a recap of some of the most important stories in Iran's energy sector in 2016.
Analysts and market watchers had anticipated a slow start to Iran's resurgence in the global oil market, but the OPEC member beat expectations by raising crude oil production and exports at a faster pace than expecte, according to Financial Tribune.
The country opened its oil terminals to foreign customers barely a month after the lifting of sanctions, as three international tankers loaded 4 million barrels of crude from the Kharg Oil Terminal in the Persian Gulf for refineries in Europe. The shipments in February were made as per the order of French oil and gas company Total, Spanish refiner Cepsa and Russia’s Lukoil.
Major European companies including Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total and Eni resumed buying Iran's crude oil last year as Iran ramped up oil sales to its traditional customers in Asia.
Iran's battle to restore its pre-sanctions market share in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries coincided with the collapse of oil prices to 13-year lows in February and an initiative, led by world's top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia, to freeze or cut production to prop up prices.
OPEC and non-OPEC countries gathered in Qatar in April to discuss and reach a freeze accord, but negotiations fell through after Saudi Arabia pulled out of talks in a last-minute decision following Iran's refusal to join the pact.
Iran said it would discuss any oil deal after reaching its pre-sanctions output of around 4 million barrels per day.
The country insisted on its position in a meeting of OPEC ministers in June and the group's second gathering on Nov. 30, in which the 13-nation bloc clinched a historic and unlikely deal to slash collective output by 1.2 million barrels per day.
Iran emerged as a clear winner of the oil accord, being the only producer allowed to pump up production from its October output level. Non-OPEC producers, including Russia, pledged to contribute to the deal by cutting 558,000 barrels in daily output.
Last year looked like the year that Iran could finally sign major oil contracts and bring back major international companies to develop its key petroleum sector after years of international restrictions. But now it seems that that has to wait.
Tehran lifted the curtain on a new model of oil contracts, dubbed as Iran Petroleum Contract (IPC), late last year. The Oil Ministry had planned a conference in London in February to introduce more details of IPC and subsequently hold tenders for dozens of oil and gas development projects.
But the plan hit a roadblock as some domestic groups opposed to President Hassan Rouhani and his administration put a spike in the wheel of the IPC tenders, casting the new oil deals as a "major concession" of Iran's rich hydrocarbon resources that would allow foreigners to plunder the national wealth.
After a rather quiet few months, the National Iranian Oil Company in October signed the first IPC contract with a domestic company.
According to the deal, worth $2.2 billion, Persia Oil and Gas Industry Development Co., a subsidiary of Iranian holding Setad Ejraiye Farmane Emam, will develop three small and medium-sized oilfields.
The deal, which came with little fanfare and media coverage prior to its signing, was perceived as a U-turn in IPC contracts which were geared to attract foreign investors.
Tehran hopes to hold the first international tenders in its petroleum industry in early 2017, with the giant South Azadegan Oilfield near the Iraqi border the first project to be tendered.
Oil, Gas Agreements
Despite failing to launch the IPC tenders last year, Iran took important steps to open up its energy industry to foreign investors.
Total S.A. and China National Petroleum Corporation in November signed a preliminary agreement in November to develop Phase 11 of the giant South Pars Gas Field. The agreement, worth $4.8 billion, is expected to be signed into a final deal by next March.
Royal Dutch Shell, the second largest publicly-traded oil company in the world, inked an initial agreement with Iran's Petroleum Engineering and Development Company (PEDEC) in December to study the giant South Azadegan and Yadavaran oilfields and a gas field in Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.
PTT Exploration and Production Public Company Limited (PTTEP), Thailand's state oil company, signed an MoU to study Changuleh, Belal and Dalpari oilfields. In late November, Pergas Consortium, a group of 11 international oil and gas companies, signed a preliminary agreement to study two oilfields in Khuzestan.
Malaysia's oil giant Pertamina also signed a nondisclosure agreement to study Ab-Teymour and Mansouri fields.
South Pars Project
Iran commissioned several phases of South Pars Gas Field last year in its protracted quest to match and exceed the output of its small Arab neighbor Qatar from the world's largest gas field.
Phases 15 and 16 of the mega gas project were officially launched by Rouhani in January and phases 20 and 21 came on stream in September last year.
Iran boosted gas production from South Pars by nearly 100 million cubic meters a day last year, thanks to the launch of phases 15, 16, 20 and 21. It hopes to overtake Qatar's production next year which is reportedly around 650 mcm/d and raise daily output to 1.2 billion cubic meters by 2020.
Tehran has opened talks with several foreign companies, notably Danish conglomerate Maersk Group, to tap into the oil layer of the SP gas field. Officials say production could rise in the first half of this year at a rate of 35,000 barrels per day.
Tehran continued its political and economic alignment with Moscow last year by signing a lofty deal to build two new nuclear power plants in the southern city of Bushehr -- home to its sole nuclear reactor that was also constructed by Russia and launched in 2012.
The two nuclear plants are estimated to cost more than $10 billion and should boost Iran's total nuclear power output to more than 2,000 megawatts. The second reactor is slated to become operational in October 2024 and the third by April 2026. Officials say the units will help save domestic crude oil consumption by 22 million barrels annually and curb harmful emissions by 14 million tons a year.
Dispute Over Subsidized Fuel
The fate of electronic fuel cards, a relic of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and a scheme to impose two prices for gasoline and other fuels, were the subject of a tussle last year between the government and the previous parliament that was largely made up of lawmakers friendly with and affiliated to the Ahmadinejad administration.
Before the end of its four-year term in late May, the outgoing parliament passed legislation in April that mandated the government to set two prices for gasoline: a base price for subsidized gasoline and a higher price that could be used after consumption hit a certain ceiling.
The legislation was seen as a setback for the Rouhani administration, which had started to offer gasoline at a single price for all consumers in the previous year. But an amendment in August to the state budget bill for fiscal 2017-18 revoked the two-tier pricing scheme, leaving the door open for discarding the fuel rationing system once and for all.
However the government appears determined to put a permanent end to the gasoline rationing system that had been controversial from the outset and many said reeked of corruption. As Iran draws closer to the presidential elections in May, the president and his men are aware of the need for normalcy in prices of basic goods. Rouhani is set run for a second and last term.