Former Iranian Gas Chief Owji Is Nominated as Oil Minister

Iran’s new president picked the former head of the country’s natural-gas company as oil minister, at a time when the Islamic Republic is engaged in fraught negotiations with world powers to revive petroleum exports.

Javad Owji, who hasn’t previously held a full ministerial post but was once managing director of National Iranian Gas Co., was proposed for the role in a list of cabinet ministers presented to lawmakers by President Ebrahim Raisi. He would replace retiring veteran Bijan Namdar Zanganeh.

Owji was more recently the head of Sina Energy Development Co., owned by the state-run charity Bonyad-e Mostazafan that’s controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His career has included senior positions at other energy and petrochemicals companies such as Petro Mofid Development Holding, which is also ultimately controlled by Khamenei’s office.

Owji was sanctioned by the U.S. in November 2020 for his involvement at Sina Energy, part of Washington’s crackdown on Khamenei’s Bonyad-e Mostazafan Foundation, a religious endowment for war veterans and the poor that controls a large number of factories, mines and construction firms. The U.S. Treasury also targeted his predecessor, Zanganeh, around the same time amid a raft of sanctions on major officials in Iran’s oil sector.

Critical Juncture

“He’s an engineer and technocrat,” said Iman Nasseri, managing director for the Middle East at consultant FGE and who has worked in Iran.

The potential appointment comes at a critical juncture for Tehran, which is seeking to remove punishing U.S. sanctions on its oil exports by reviving a 2015 nuclear accord with Washington, three European powers, China and Russia. Raisi’s selection of hawkish diplomat Hossein Amirabdollahian as foreign minister has indicated the president intends to pursue a tough line in the negotiations, which have lost momentum.

Iran’s crude output has plummeted since then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear accord in 2018 and tightened sanctions.

Owji’s lack of diplomatic experience may make it harder for him to defend Iran’s position should other OPEC members try to impose a production quota on it if U.S. sanctions are eased. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies began supply cuts early last year as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Due to the sanctions, Iran was exempted.

“He will have a tough challenge in defending Iran’s position and protecting Iran from calls to cut production,” said Nasseri. “Many of Iran’s seasoned OPEC hands are no longer there and Owji doesn’t have the deep relationships there.”

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