The threat of military action in the Middle East has gotten more intense this week. After several attacks on tankers that could be plausibly denied, Iran has made its first direct attack on a US asset, shooting down an unmanned US drone. The Americans say the drone was in international waters, while Iran claims that it had entered Iranian air space. Reports emerging out of the White House state the US President Donald Trump had authorised a military strike in response, but pulled back at the last minute. The simmering tensions between the two countries are now reaching boiling point, with Iran declaring that it is ‘ready for war’.
Predictably, crude oil prices spiked on the news. Brent and WTI prices rose by almost US$4/b over worries that a full-blown war will threaten global supplies. That this is happening just ahead of the OPEC meeting in Vienna – which was delayed by a week over internal squabbling over dates – places a lot of volatile cards on the table. Far more than more than surging US production, this stand-off will colour the direction of the crude market for the rest of 2019.
It started with an economic war, as the Trump administration placed increasingly tight sanctions on Iran. Financial sanctions came first, then sanctions on crude oil exports from Iran. But the situation was diffused when the US introduced waivers for 8 major importers of Iranian crude in November 2018, calming the markets. Even when the waivers were not renewed in April, the oil markets were still relatively calm, banking on the fact that Iran’s fellow OPEC countries would step in to the fill the gap. Most of Iran’s main clients – like South Korea, Japan and China – had already begun winding down their purchases in March, reportedly causing Iran’s crude exports to fall from 2 mmb/d to 400 kb/d. And just recently, the US also begun targeting Iranian petrochemical exports. Between a rock and a hard place, Iran looks seems forced to make good on its threats to go to war in the strategic Straits of Hormuz.
As the waivers ended, four tankers were attacked off the coast of Fujairah in the UAE in May. The immediate assumption was that these attacks were backed by Iran. Then, just a week ago, another two tankers were attacked, with the Americans showing video evidence reportedly show Iranian agents removing mines. But still, there was no direct connection to Iran for the attacks, even as the US and Iran traded diplomatic barbs. But the downing of the drone is unequivocally the work of the Iranian military. With President Donald Trump reportedly ‘bored’ of attempting regime change in Venezuela and his ultra-hawkish staff Mike Pompeo and John Bolton in the driver’s seat, military confrontation now seems inevitable.
This, predictably, has the oil world very nervous. Not just because the extension of the current OPEC+ deal could be scuppered, but because war will impact more than just Iranian oil. The safety of the Straits of Hormuz is in jeopardy, a key node in global oil supply through which almost 20 mmb/d of oil from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE flows along with LNG exports from the current world’s largest producer, Qatar. At its narrowest, the chokepoint in the Straits is just 50km from Iranian land. Crude exports could be routed south to Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, but there is risk there too; the mouth of the Red Sea is where Iranian-backed Yemeni rebels are active, who have already started attacking Saudi land facilities.
This will add a considerable war risk premium to global crude prices, just as it did during the 1990 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But more than just prices, the destabilising effects of a war could consume more than just the price of a barrel. If things are heading the way the current war-like signs are heading, then the oil world is in for a very major change very soon.
Historical crude price responses to wars in the Middle East
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Headline crude prices for the week beginning 16 September 2019 – Brent: US$69/b; WTI: US$63/b
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