DOHA: Top global producers Saudi Arabia and Russia agreed yesterday to freeze oil output in a bid to shore up prices after a 70 percent drop due to chronic oversupply. Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi said the move – which is conditional on other major producers joining in – was designed to stabilize the market following the dramatic price fall since mid-2014. Further talks involving Iran and Iraq are due in Tehran today. “We don’t want significant gyrations in prices. We don’t want a reduction in supply. We want to meet demand and we want a stable oil price,” Naimi said.

The announcement followed a closed-door meeting in Doha between Saudi Arabia – the de facto leader of OPEC – Venezuela, Qatar and Russia, which does not belong to the oil cartel. “Following the meeting, all four countries are ready to freeze oil production at January levels, if other major producers do the same,” said Russia’s energy minister, Alexander Novak. The announcement marked the first move between OPEC and non-cartel producers to stem the price fall since the slide began nearly 19 months ago.

Kuwait said it is committed to the agreement to freeze output provided other producers back it, Kuwait’s acting Oil Minister Anas Al-Saleh said yesterday. “Kuwait welcomes the Doha deal … and confirms its commitment to what was agreed – to freeze production according to January 2016 levels – … provided that the main producers from OPEC and outside OPEC are committed to it,” he said in a statement. He said he hoped the agreement would provide a positive atmosphere to support oil prices and balance the oil market.

Saudi Arabia and other OPEC producers have been refusing to reduce output in an attempt to drive less competitive players, in particular US shale oil producers, out of the market. Riyadh has said it would consider output cuts only if other producers agree to follow suit, and pressure has been building as drops in oil revenues hit government coffers. Russia in particular has seen its recession-hit economy damaged by the slump, though even Saudi Arabia has announced a record budget deficit. Naimi said yesterday’s decision was “the beginning of a process which we will assess in the next few months and decide whether we need other steps to stabilize… the market”.

Qatar’s Energy Minister Mohammed bin Saleh Al-Sada said “intensive communications” would start immediately with other OPEC and non-OPEC producers, including Iraq and Iran, to win their support. Iran said it would host talks with Iraq and Venezuela in Tehran on today, and left the door open to joining efforts to stabilize the market. “There’s room for discussion and examination of this issue,” Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said.

But he insisted Iran intends to maintain its share of the market. “What is important first of all is that right now the oil market faces an output surplus and, secondly, Iran won’t relinquish its share,” Zanganeh said. Prices have come under renewed pressure by the return of Iran to world markets after the lifting of international sanctions linked to its nuclear program.

The fact that output from OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia and non-OPEC Russia – the world’s two top producers and exporters – is near record highs complicates any agreement since Iran is producing at least 1 million barrels per day below its capacity and pre-sanctions levels. However, two non-Iranian sources close to OPEC discussions told Reuters that Iran may be offered special terms as part of the output freeze deal. “Iran is returning to the market and needs to be given a special chance but it also needs to make some calculations,” said one source.

The effort to bring other producers on board may prove complicated and the market response was muted. Prices had risen after news of yesterday’s meeting broke on hopes that a production cut would be unveiled, but there was disappointment after only a conditional freeze was announced. In early afternoon London deals, Brent North Sea crude for delivery in April was up 50 cents at $33.89 per barrel. US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for March delivery added 41 cents to $29.85 a barrel from Monday’s closing level.

“The news has actually disappointed the market slightly because some people had hoped to see a cut rather than a production freeze,” said City Index analyst Fawad Razaqzada. In a research note, Danske Bank said the move would have little impact on reducing oversupply as “recent estimates suggest that both Russia and Saudi Arabia produced at levels close to a record high in January”. “The two leading oil producers have basically committed not to take any imminent action to reduce the current global overproduction,” it said.

And Natixis analyst Abhishek Deshpande told AFP there was a “low probability” that Iran and Iraq would quickly agree to a freeze. “That essentially is a production cut for them” as both were planning to boost output this year, he said.

OPEC has been quarrelling for decades over output levels and Russia, which last agreed to cooperate with OPEC back in 2001, never followed through on its pledge and raised exports instead. Also complicating any potential agreement is the geo-political rivalry in the Middle East between Sunni Muslim power Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies are fighting proxy conflicts with Russia and Iran in the region, including in Syria and Yemen. In Syria’s five-year-old civil war, Riyadh politically and financially backs some rebel groups battling President Bashar Al-Assad’s government, which has gained the upper hand with the help of Russian warplanes and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. – Agencies