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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer on oil and gas, renewable energy, climate change, energy policy and geopolitics. He is based in Pittsburgh, PA.

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Oil Markets Ignore A World On The Brink Of War

U.S.-Iran tension continues to rise over the attacked tankers in the Gulf of Oman, but oil traders no longer seem to be paying attention.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hit the cable news circuit over the weekend to blame Iran for the tanker attacks and to drum up support for more aggressive measures to isolate the Iranian government. The Pentagon also released new photos to bolster its case that Iran was behind the attack.

However, many experts say the evidence is insufficient to jump to any conclusions. The head of the UN called for an independent investigation to get at the truth, a move that won plaudits from other governments around the world. “It’s very important to know the truth and it’s very important that responsibilities are clarified. Obviously that can only be done if there is an independent entity that verifies those facts,” United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters on Friday.

Both U.S. and Iranian officials have said that they do not want war, but they seem trapped in a cycle of escalation. Iran said on Monday that its uranium enrichment would breach limits set out in the 2015 nuclear accord and called on Europe to help it circumvent U.S. sanctions. After the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal last year and imposed several rounds of sanctions, Iran has been unable to access any of the upside of the nuclear deal while still being confined to its terms.

The Trump administration is betting that by backing Iran into a corner and forcing it to violate the terms of the deal, it can paint Iran as the villain, a strategy that might yet bear fruit. Just as American foreign policy is being driven by hardliners, the cycle of conflict benefits hardliners in Tehran. As each side ups the ante, any possible off ramp from the conflict becomes increasingly out of reach. Related: Supply Woes Keep Oil Prices Subdued

While most of Europe has been at odds with Washington over the nuclear deal, even going as far as trying to setup a special financial entity to allow European companies to do business with Iran, some European officials are beginning to believe that they may struggle to keep the nuclear accord alive.

Iran wants Europe to buy its oil, but because the EU cannot, Iran may begin to exit the nuclear deal. “Since Europeans cannot do this without violating the US sanctions, there is a risk that the nuclear agreement will break down,” Commerzbank wrote in a note. That, in turn, offers a pretext for the Trump administration take the next escalatory move.

Just this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned the Iranian government not to violate the terms of the deal. “We are pushing for Iran to keep to (the nuclear pact) - if that is not the case, there will of course be consequences,” Merkel said.

With all of that said, the U.S. government clearly has internal disagreement on its own policy towards Iran, leading to confusion and mixed messages. National security adviser John Bolton has consistently called for regime change, while the Trump administration has denied that was the official policy. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has taken a slightly more nuanced position, which calls on Tehran to change its behavior. However, Pompeo’s strategy would seem to inevitably lead to regime change as well since it entails a list of a dozen demands that Iran cannot possibly entertain.

Meanwhile, Trump himself appears less eager for war. He sent a message through Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Presumably, Trump was inquiring about negotiating, something that Khamenei dismissed.

Most recently, however, Trump downplayed the tanker attacks, the very incident that seems to be pushing both sides closer to conflict than ever. In an interview with TIME, Trump said that the tanker attacks were “very minor,” although he added that he was much more concerned with the nuclear program.

He said that while he thinks Iran was behind the tanker attacks, he sees Iran as less confrontational towards the U.S. than they were under the Obama administration. That characterization certainly is at odds with the line from his Sec. of State and his national security adviser. Related: Cheddar To The Rescue? UK Company Uses Cheese To Power 4,000 Homes

When asked whether he was considering military action against Iran, Trump told TIME, “I wouldn’t say that. I can’t say that at all.”

And yet, without any plan for negotiations, the odds of conflict are uncomfortably high. “The US and Iran are each accusing the other of being behind the attacks. Meanwhile, the US has sent another 1,000 troops to the crisis region. Though neither side wants any military confrontation, the possibility of this happening nonetheless – through carelessness or a series of unfortunate circumstances – cannot be ruled out entirely,” Commerzbank wrote in a note.

However, aside from an initial price spike last week following the tanker attacks, oil prices have barely noticed. In fact, prices jumped on Tuesday, moving up nearly 4 percent during midday trading. The reason? Trump tweeted that he and Xi Jingping were set to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, raising hopes of a breakthrough in the trade war.

The U.S. and Iran are at the precipice, but global financial and commodity markets are much more concerned with economic recession.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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  • Mamdouh Salameh on June 19 2019 said:
    If the global oil market is ignoring the escalating tensions in the Gulf, it is because of three major factors. The first is that despite efforts by the hawks in the Trump administration led by John Bolton the hawkish neo-conservative National Security Adviser to President Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Natanyahu to push the United States to war with Iran, war is neither an option for Iran nor for the United States. Iran is not seeking a war with the United States but it will retaliate if its crude oil exports were prevented from passing through the Strait of Hormuz. Equally, war with Iran is not an option for the United States either because the damage US national interests in the Middle East and economy will be unimaginable.

    The second factor is that President Trump has a far bigger war to worry about, namely the trade war with China.

    The trade war between the two superpowers is principally not about China’s trade surplus and alleged Chinese malpractices. It is about the petro-yuan undermining the supremacy of the petrodollar and by extension the US financial system, Taiwan, refusal by China to comply with US sanctions against Iran, China’s overwhelming dominance in the Asia-Pacific region and its sovereignty claim over 90% of the South China Sea, the new order in the 21st century and above all fear of the US losing its unipolar status.

    The third factor is that despite OPEC+’s production cut agreement, the global oil market hasn’t re-balanced. There is still a certain amount of glut in the market.

    While a flaring up of the conflict between Iran and the United States could lead to a disruption of oil supplies in the Strait of Hormuz and send oil prices surging to more than $130 a barrel for a short period, the long-term uncertainty created by the trade war could have a far more serious impact on global demand and prices.

    Still, US accusations that Iran was behind the recent attacks on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman can neither be proven nor substantiated. Many experts say the evidence is insufficient to jump to any conclusions. The attacks including one on a Japanese tanker could have been a deliberate attempt by hawks in the Trump administration or Israel to scuttle mediation efforts by the Japanese Prime Minister who was visiting Tehran at the time of the attacks carrying a letter from President Trump to Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who refused to receive it.

    The European Union (EU) could obviate the threat by Iran to breach limits set out in the 2015 nuclear accord if it helps Iran circumvent US sanctions. It is no good for the EU to tell the world that it is against US sanctions on Iran and still refrain from buying Iranian crude. In so doing, the EU is proving to the world that it is an economic giant but a dwarf in geopolitical matters.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London

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