Agustino Fontevecchia – Forbes December 13, 2011
Crude oil prices surged on Tuesday on reports that Iran was set to begin war games in the Strait of Hormuz to practice closing down the key chokepoint which concentrates 30% of global seaborne oil shipments. Prices retracted a little after Iran’s Foreign Ministry confirmed the Strait remained open, and as OPEC cut its 2012 demand forecast by 100,000 barrels per day to 1.1 million daily barrels given a cooling global economy.
There is little doubt that geopolitical concerns will remain a key factor for commodity prices in 2012. Added to the Eurozone sovereign debt and competitiveness crisis and a surging budget deficit in the U.S. and U.K., conflict risk in the Middle East has escalated.
Exemplified in Tuesday’s price action, Iran’s influence on global crude oil prices is substantial. West Texas Intermediate crude prices broke the $100 mark after surging 3.5% in New York Tuesday morning to $101.25 per barrel while Brent crude, the international benchmark, jumped 3.6% to $111.10. Prices retraced part of their gains, with WTI closing the day below at $99.64.
The pop in crude oil prices came after Iranian MP Parviz Sorouri of the Majlis National Security and Foreign Policy Committee said:
Currently, the Middle East region supplies 70 percent of the world’s energy needs, (most of) which are transported through the Strait of Hormuz. We will hold an exercise to close the Strait of Hormuz in the near future. If the world wants to make the region insecure, we will make the world insecure.
The comments, picked up by the quasi-official Iranian Student News Agency, and reported by the Tehran Times, were later complemented by a statement by the Iranian Foreign Ministry noting the Strait remains open, according to Bloomberg.
Hormuz is one of the world’s most important waterways, with daily flow of about 15 million barrels of oil. That’s 90% of Persian Gulf Exports and 40% of global consumption, according to geopolitical analysts at Stratfor.
“The importance of this waterway to both American military and economic interests is difficult to overstate. Considering Washington’s more general — and fundamental — interest in securing freedom of the seas, the U.S. Navy would almost be forced to respond aggressively to any attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz,” explained analysts at Stratfor. Iran’s intentions, though, are to avoid an attack and therefore would use the threat for deterrence rather than as an offensive or defensive action.
Iran is being pushed by what the analysts call a “covert intelligence war” carried on by the U.S., Israel, and other U.S. allies. A recent U.S. drone, shot down over Iranian airspace, added to other recent examples of escalation like “the defection to the West of Iranian officials with knowledge of Tehran’s nuclear program; the Iranian seizure of British servicemen in the Shatt al Arab Waterway; the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists; the use of the Stuxnet worm to cripple Iranian uranium enrichment efforts,” according to Stratfor.
On the markets front, Iran could cause substantial crude oil price movements if it chose to take action. From Stratfor:
A single ship striking a naval mine (or even a serious Iranian move to sow mines) could quickly and dramatically drive up global oil prices and maritime insurance rates. This combination is bad enough in the best of times. But the Iranian threat to the Strait of Hormuz could not be more effective than at this moment, with the world just starting to show signs of economic recovery. The shock wave of a spike in energy prices — not to mention the wider threat of a conflagration in the Persian Gulf — could leave the global economy in even worse straits than it was a year ago.
Crude oil prices are set to remain high, despite OPEC’s bearish call that demand will be lower than expected. Citi’s analysts expect global oil demand, and supply, to hit 90.3 million barrels per day, pushing Brent to an average $110 per barrel and WTI to $100 through 2012. The reversal of the Seaway Pipeline, recently sold by Conoco Phillips to Enbridge, will provide further support for WTI prices, as the bottleneck at Cushing, Oklahoma is eased and crude begins to flow into refineries owned by Exxon Mobil, BP, Marathon Petroleum, Valero Energy, and others.