WTI Tops $70 For First Time Since Nov 2014 As Iran Deal Deadline Looms

With the Iran Deal looking increasingly fragile, front-month WTI futures have just traded above $70 for the first time since Nov 2014.

$70 just happens to be the 50% retracement from the Aug 2013 highs to the Feb 2016 lows...

As OilPrice.com's Tsvetana Paraskova notes, US President Donald Trump has another week to decide whether to waive the sanctions against Iran. Expectations that he would not waive the sanctions this time around have supported the price of oil over the past month, with Brent briefly breaching above $75 to its highest price level since November 2014.

Analysts are still struggling to quantify the impact of possible fresh sanctions on Iran and prices are expected to be volatile as the deadline for President Trump’s decision is getting closer.

The month of May could be a very important one for oil prices with geopolitical risks stacked and too close to call. Apart from the Iran sanctions waiver, the market will be looking to the Venezuela presidential election that socialist leader Nicolas Maduro has scheduled for May 20.

“The geopolitical landscape will therefore remain tense and price conditions volatile,” Stephen Brennock, an analyst at PVM Oil Associates, told Platts on Friday.

Commenting on the Iran sanctions waiver, Commerzbank analysts said in a note:

“This will be the main issue preoccupying the oil market, with fundamental factors such as stock levels and production data taking a backseat until this has been resolved”.

Even more worrisome, as OilPrice.com's Kent Moors writes, is that Trump walking away from the deal, and possibly re-imposing sanctions on Iran could throw the oil market into chaos.

An agreement is an agreement, or so it’s said.

Tensions are skyrocketing after Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s claim that Iran has violated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement.

This is the deal that was meant to shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Whether Netanyahu is correct or not, it puts the ball in President Trump’s court. Remember, he has questioned the JCPOA since before his election.

But while the talking heads on TV will tell you that cancelling the JCPOA and renewing sanctions on Iran will drive oil prices up…

The truth is much messier. Here’s what’ll really happen…

Iran’s Restrictions are Extensive – and Controversial

As we await a Trump decision on whether to continue the Iranian nuclear accord, the uncertainty is beginning to have an impact on oil’s pricing volatility.

The accord signed during the Obama administration is officially called the JCPOA. It was agreed upon in Vienna on July 14, 2015 after some 20 months of negotiations.

Signatories include the five permanent (and veto carrying) members of the UN Security Council (U.S., UK, France, China, Russia), Germany and the European Union (P5+1+EU) on the one hand, and Iran on the other.

Under JCPOA, Tehran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, reduce its store of low enriched uranium by 95 percent, and decrease the number of gas centrifuges for 13 years by some 67 percent.

Additionally, for a period of 15 years, JCPOPA states that Iran would do the following:

  • Not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 percent, enough for energy use but well below weapons grade;

  • agree to forego the building of any new heavy-water plants, essential to control nuclear reactions, over the same period, and

  • limit enrichment to a single location employing first generation centrifuges for a period of 10 years.

In return, the P5+1+EU agreed to begin phasing out – subject to a sequence of verifications – economic and trading sanctions imposed by the U.N., the U.S., and the E.U.

However, during the 2016 presidential campaign Trump heavily criticized JCPOA and pledged to scrap the accord…

America Wants More from the Agreement

In President Trump’s view, matters not part of the agreement – such as Iranian support for global terrorism, continued development of ballistic missile programs, and support for enemies of Israel and Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf region – need to be added to the arrangement.

As a result, the White House announced in October of last year that it would not provide the periodic JCPOA certification as required under U.S. law.

However, the administration did not end the agreement.

This week, Israel released documents claiming that Iran has continued its nuclear program in violation of JCPOA. The presentation was less than compelling, including little tangible information about the post-accord environment.

Both the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and independent watchdog organizations have said that there is no evidence to support the contention that Iran is evading JCPOA. The IAEA has the responsibility under JCPOA to monitor Tehran’s compliance.

Now, my Iranian contacts were quick to note the obvious: Each of the new demands made by Washington are not part of what is covered by JCPOA.

“One does not revise an international arrangement after the fact to pander to one’s own internal politics,” a source in the Iranian National Oil Company said over the weekend.

There is also strong support from other permanent UN Security Council members, Germany, and the EU to continue the agreement.

Yet all other parties are very aware that JCPOA will not survive if the U.S. pulls out.

And neither will the current oil environment…

The Future without the JCPOA Is Bleak

The global pricing of crude oil is now feeling the impact of the politics swirling about Washington.

I expect that the current intent inside The Beltway is to develop evidence to support the Israeli claims. But there seems to be little leverage to accomplish such an objective, even if the administration can figure out what it wants to add.

This is an exceptionally dangerous play with no clearly identifiable upside beyond delivering on a campaign pledge and a few tweets.

Trump may have made a threat to scrap JCPOA a central theme for his political support base and has said that a better replacement is needed, but that development has a very low probability.

Throwing out JCPOA will certainly put Iran back into full weapons development with a corresponding rise in geopolitical uncertainty.

And there will be a direct impact on oil prices.

Renewal of U.S. sanctions will increase the cost of Iran’s crude exports, cut Tehran off from easy access to global banking and capital, and in all likelihood reduce the country’s predictable export volume.

These are factors that would contribute to an upward pressure on international global oil prices.

But there are other things to consider – factors that could be even stronger and ultimately drive prices in the other direction.

For one thing, Iran would certainly stop any pretense of abiding by the OPEC-Russia production cuts. That, in turn, would prompt defections by others.

Moreover, the enticement for a spike in production will be almost irresistible for U.S. companies – which are both the quickest sources of additional oil coming into the market, and the main source not subject to production caps.

But the main destabilizing factor emerges from the acceleration in volatility itself.

Any perception of additional security challenges in the Persian Gulf – and make no mistake, the end of JCPOA will heighten tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia – will contribute to a near-term rise in global prices.

The resulting uncertainty will quickly give way to a widening application of competing short and long plays, which, in a whipsaw effect, will result in higher highs and lower lows in the oil price band and make genuine pricing determinations more difficult.

Ask any trader.

Predictability is more important than anything else. Ending JCPOA thrusts the Iranian factor into the center of the equation.

And that will not be a preferable development.