Iran has deposits of more than 68 minerals that the government estimates are worth up to $700 billion. Iran is among the global top ten in reserves for iron ore, copper, and zinc.
Iran’s reserve-to-production ratios are high—roughly four times the global average for zinc and copper—due to political and economic shocks that interrupted the long cycle of exploration to production necessary for mining investment.
Since 2005, production of both iron ore and copper has grown at around 15 percent from the low starting point of 15 million tons of iron ore and 0.6 million tons of copper concentrate annually.
Major investment would be needed to continue these trends and for the mining sector to realise its potential.Yet, with the downturn in prices, global mining companies have slashed investment in new projects, even in countries with highly developed mining infrastructure and known ore deposits.
Capital available for exploration companies (“juniors”) has also dried up. Should Iran attract investment for new projects, it will likely take ten to 15 years from discovery to production on top of any time needed for exploration. With the right regulatory framework and investment incentives, Iran could take advantage of a global rebound in the industry in the long term.
Unlike in the oil and gas sector, foreigners can own 100 percent of the mining rights for a discovery.
Whilst most of the output of Iran’s mines are for the bulk materials needed for construction aggregates, the largest untapped value is in copper, iron ore, zinc, and coal. The Sarcheshmeh copper and Gol-e-gohar iron ore mines each produced more than $1 billion in revenue in 2014, although no other mine topped $200 million.
Given the potential size of its reserves, Iran is also spending relatively little on exploration: its exploration budget increased from $20 million in 2006 to a peak of $40 million in 2012, which is only about one-fifth the amount spent by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and one-fifteenth the exploration budget of Chile.
With scarce international investment for exploration, Iran will likely have to boost its financing or incentives for exploration. For example, Chile’s National Mining Corporation, ENAMI, has provided loans for exploration and equipment and has purchased ore from small and medium-sized Chilean players.
Iran’s mining sector as a whole increased in value at 11 percent per year from 2008 until global prices peaked in 2013, driven mainly by iron ore and copper. Iron ore has been the most valuable mining product, at $2.7 billion in the Iranian year ending March 2014, accounting for 55 percent of the sector.
With production costs of $16 to $25 per ton, margins have remained high even as the global iron ore price dropped from $128 per ton in 2013 to $52 per ton in 2015. Increased domestic demand for iron ore production will likely escalate as Iran seeks to triple steel production in ten years.
Steel producers can import iron ore, but the Iranian Mines and Mining Industries Development and Renovation Organization (IMIDRO), a stateowned holding company responsible for mining policy, anticipates an increase in domestic production of 8 percent per year, to go from 56 million tons in 2014 to 116 million by 2025.
Towards this end, IMIDRO is undertaking a three-year exploration plan of 200,000 square kilometres focused on the primary iron ore provinces of Yazd and Kerman, as well as the border regions with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Perhaps the brightest potential for a rebound in global mining is in copper, and Iran is well placed to take advantage of it. With 30 million tons of copper reserves, Iran has 4 percent of the world total, similar to Russia, China, and the United States, which trail only Chile, Australia, Peru, and Mexico.
Starting from a very low baseline in 2002, Iranian production increased at 17 percent per year in the following decade, primarily at the Sarcheshmeh mine, which is the 16th largest by capacity in the world. The 2015 production of 200,000 tons is still relatively low—about a fifth of the production of Chile’s single largest mine, Escondida. In 2014, copper revenue reached $750 million, which was 15 percent of the mining sector, second only to iron ore.
As with iron ore, marginal costs in Iran are low at $1,500 per ton ($1,250 at Sarcheshmeh) compared with a global average of $2,750 per ton (before taxes and royalties). The main advantages come from low-cost labour and electricity.
Iran is targeting investment opportunities in copper, iron ore, and zinc
Iran is targeting $29 billion of investment for existing and new projects across the mining sector. In the short term, IMIDRO has prioritised 250,000 tons per year of copper projects under the National Iranian Copper Industries Company, the state-owned copper subsidiary, and processing plants for iron ore, potash, and coal.
By 2025, it is targeting 800,000 tons per year. IMIDRO is pursuing a $1 billion investment to produce 800,000 tons of zinc concentrate and ingot at Mehdiabad, a project for three tons per year of gold from ZarShuran Phase II, and increases of 450,000 tons of coal mining at Tabas and up to 300,000 tons at Savadkooh for coking.
Iran’s productivity is mid-range for mining countries with workers half as efficient in copper and iron ore as in the United States but two and a half times as efficient as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. IMIDRO has identified nine initiatives to increase the competitiveness of the mining sector, including high-end technology, but also marketing and sales in exports, human resources development, and moving beyond the main existing mines into higher-risk, higher-reward mines.
To attract scarce international investment, IMIDRO and the Geological Survey of Iran will also need to broadly communicate and market the regulatory framework, geological information, and partnership opportunities.
The government is seeking to use mining to boost the private sector and enhance economic activity in underdeveloped areas. Iran’s mining resources are distributed across the country along a wide belt between East Azerbaijan in the north and Baluchestan in the southeast.
The top provinces by value cover much of this belt, including the majority of iron ore mines. They are Kerman, with 40 percent of GVA and 21 percent of employment, and Yazd, with 28 percent of GVA and 13 percent of employment, followed by Isfahan, East Azerbaijan, Razavi Khorasan, and Markazi, all at 3 to 4 percent of GVA.
Prices for commodities have been volatile in the mining industry and have declined by about 40 percent since 2011. Yet with their low costs, Iran’s mines can be competitive. The sector would require additional investment that could position Iran for rewards should the market recover.
With only a mild rebound in iron ore prices of 1 to 2 percent per year anticipated by the World Bank, we estimate that GVA in Iran could increase from $3.6 billion in 2014 to $10 billion in 2035; if iron ore prices return to 2014 levels, that amount would increase to more than $14 billion. (Source: McKinsey)