Turkey’s runoff election is paralyzing key oil exports from northern Iraq

A satellite image showing the port of Ceyhan centred on August 18, 2015 in Turkey.
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Turkey’s runoff election is compounding delays to restart roughly 450,000 barrels per day of Iraqi crude oil exports, as Ankara studies its relationship with Baghdad, analysts and market sources told CNBC.

Oil typically flows through Turkey from both the Iraqi state and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). More specifically, this Kirkuk crude flows down the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline linking the north of the Gulf country with Turkey’s Ceyhan port in the Mediterranean. But the flows have been paralyzed since March 25 by a legal dispute involving federal Iraq, the KRG and Turkey.

Resolution pends on the result of a second presidential vote this weekend, but a prolonged halt could reduce Iraqi crude production.

The KRG had previously trucked its crude exports across borders, until it linked its major oil-producing fields to the Iraq-Turkey pipeline and began shipping crude in 2014. Federal Baghdad denounced Erbil’s independent crude sales as illegal, threatening to ban customers of such supplies from purchasing Iraq’s larger Basra crude volumes.

After a nine-year suit, the International Chamber of Commerce’s Court of Arbitration in Paris found that Turkey violated the 1973 version of a pipeline transit agreement between Baghdad and Ankara over 2014-2018. Turkey was ordered to pay Iraq roughly $1.5 billion in damages, according to Reuters. A second arbitration suit covering 2018 to date is still ongoing.

The ICC verdict followed a domestic win for Baghdad, after Iraq’s federal court in February 2022 pronounced the KRG’s oil and gas legislation unconstitutional and invalidated its contracts with foreign firms. This decision led to U.S. companies deciding to exit contracts in Kurdistan and deterred some KRG oil buyers from further purchases.

Iraq’s oil minister Hayan Abdul-Ghani on May 23 said that Baghdad has informed Turkey it is able to restart flows through Ceyhan and awaits Ankara’s response.

“Our colleagues in Turkey said there are some evaluative issues that they have to take into account. And that resulted from the earthquake,” he said, noting that an Iraqi delegation will be sent at an unspecified time to Turkey to discuss the restart.

Kirkuk crude is exported from the Botas terminal at Ceyhan in southern Turkey, separate from Azeri crude flows shipped out from the nearby Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan port terminal. Botas resumed loadings the day after the devastating earthquake of Feb. 6 that killed at least a combined 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria, according to the U.N. The BTC terminal suffered a longer outage.

Several trade, shipping and oil producing sources — who could only comment anonymously because of contractual obligations — told CNBC that, following a request from Baghdad, Ankara was widely expected to resume Kirkuk crude exports from Ceyhan on May 13 — a day before presidential elections in Turkey, whose inconclusive first round on May 14 stymied the oil’s resumption.

Presidential purview

The sources stressed that Turkish authorities are loathe to take responsibility for the restart, while incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan fights primary rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu to prolong his roughly two-decade rule.

“The main issue with the resumption of the oil through Ceyhan is the elections ongoing in Turkey. Another obstacle in front of the resumption of oil is the ongoing case at ICC in Paris against Turkey by Baghdad from 2018 until now. Ankara asks Baghdad to drop this case, but Baghdad has yet to do so,” political analyst and former Kurdistan official Lawk Ghafuri told CNBC.

“The ruling party in Turkey [Erdogan’s AKP] wants to settle the elections and then deal with KRG’s oil with Baghdad.” 

Other analysts further emphasized Turkey’s priority to avoid further legal disputes by insisting on a strict, clear agreement on the legality of oil exports between Baghdad and Erbil. Current deals between the two counterparties are political accords, rather than legislation.

“There are still lots of technicalities that need to be sorted out between the KRG and Baghdad. Although there has been an initial deal, the details have not been fleshed out in terms of how oil [is] to be exported and which side has control over the revenues,” Yerevan Saeed, research associate at the Arab Gulf Institute in Washington, told CNBC by email.

In addition to deciding marketing distribution, Baghdad and Kurdistan might also have to rework the agreements under which foreign firms have prepaid sums to Erbil in exchange for oil volumes, as well as the reimbursement contracts for foreign producers of Kurdish oil, market sources say.

Saeed noted Ankara may stretch negotiations with Baghdad to cover water resources from the Euphrates River and Turkey’s military presence in Kurdistan and Sinjar.

Bilal Wahab, Wagner fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, agreed that control of the Kurdish oil export flows arms Turkey with the leverage to ask Baghdad to drop its fine and second arbitration suit, as well as redefine the scope of Ankara’s business relationship with Iraq.

“This arbitration award is forcing a decision on Ankara: should they continue doing business with Kurdistan, where this has led to legal trouble with federal Iraq, or should they use this as a bird in hand to segue into getting the chance to do business in Iraq? All in all, by shutting down the pipeline, Turkey is not losing a lot, maybe the transit fee,” he told CNBC by phone, referring to Kurdistan’s payment to transport crude along the Iraq-Turkey pipeline.

Winner talks all

An Erdogan loss in the presidential battle could prolong the oil stalemate, traders warn, with Kilicdaroglu likely to require independent negotiations with Iraq — in a diplomatic point unlikely to enjoy pride of place on the new leader’s agenda.

Third-party candidate Sinan Ogan’s Monday endorsement of Erdogan has strengthened Erdogan’s position as Turks head to the polls.

Domestically, Erdogan has enjoyed a tumultuous relationship with Turkey’s largest ethnic minority, which typically accounts for 15-20% of the Turkish population. While Erdogan has had frequent rapprochement with KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, Wahab signals Turkey could still prioritize securing benefits from the oil export stalemate.

“I don’t think a victorious Erdogan would have any qualms about using the KRG as a leverage to get a good deal out of Baghdad: favourable terms for doing business in Iraq, dropping the fine that Turkey has to pay, or dropping some of the demands that Iraq has with regard to water [from the Euphrates] and Turkish military presence in Iraq,” he said.