Brace for Covert Conflict

In the past two trading days, Brent Crude prices have fluctuated between highs of USD 92.2 per barrel and lows of USD 88.7 per barrel. Despite escalation tensions in the Middle East, oil prices have remained relatively stable over the past 24 hours. The recent barrage of rockets and drones in the region hasn’t significantly affected market sentiment regarding potential disruptions to oil supply. The key concern now is how Israel will respond: will it choose a strong retaliation to assert deterrence, risking wider regional instability, or will it revert to targeted strikes on Iran’s proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq? While it’s too early to predict, one thing is clear: brace for increased volatility, uncertainty, and speculation.

Ole R. Hvalbye,
Analyst Commodities, SEB

Amidst these developments, the market continues to focus on current fundamentals rather than unfolding geopolitical risks. Despite Iran’s recent attack on Israel, oil prices have slid, reflecting a sideways or slightly bearish sentiment. This morning, oil prices stand at USD 90 per barrel, down 2.5% from Friday’s highs.

The attack

Iran’s launch of over 300 rockets and drones toward Israel marks the first direct assault from Iranian territory since 1991. However, the attack, announced well in advance, resulted in minimal damage as Israeli and allied forces intercepted nearly all projectiles. Hence, the damage inflicted was limited. The incident has prompted US President Joe Biden to urge Israel to exercise restraint, as part of broader efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East.

Israel’s response remains uncertain as its war cabinet deliberates on potential courses of action. While the necessity of a response is acknowledged, the timing and magnitude remain undecided.

The attack was allegedly in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus, resulting in significant casualties, including a senior leader in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. It’s notable that this marks the first direct targeting of Israel from Iranian territory, setting the stage for heightened tensions between the two nations.

Despite the scale of the attack, the vast majority of Iranian projectiles were intercepted before reaching Israeli territory. However, a small number did land, causing minor damage to a military base in the southern region.

President Biden swiftly condemned Iran’s actions and pledged to coordinate a diplomatic response with leaders from the G7 nations. The US military’s rapid repositioning of assets in the region underscores the seriousness of the situation.

Iran’s willingness to escalate tensions further depends on Israel’s response, as indicated by General Mohammad Bagheri, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces. Meanwhile, speculation about a retaliatory attack from Israel persists.

Looking ahead, key questions remain unanswered. Will Iran launch additional attacks? How will Israel respond, and what implications will it have for the region? Moreover, how will Iran’s allies react to the escalating tensions?

Given the potential for a full-scale war between Iran and Israel, concerns about its impact on global energy markets are growing. Both the United States and China have strong incentives to reduce tensions in the region, given the destabilizing effects of a regional conflict.

Our view in conclusion

The recent escalation between Iran and Israel underscores the delicate balance of power in the volatile Middle East. With tensions reaching unprecedented levels and the specter of further escalation looming, the potential for a full-blown conflict cannot be understated. The ramifications of such a scenario would be far-reaching and could have significant implications for regional stability and global security.

Turning to the oil market, there has been much speculation about the possibility of a full-scale blockade of the Strait of Hormuz in the event of further escalation. However, at present, such a scenario remains highly speculative. Nonetheless, it is crucial to note that Iran’s oil production and exports remain at risk even without further escalation. Currently producing close to 3.2 million barrels per day, Iran has significantly increased its production from mid-2020 levels of 1.9 million barrels per day.

In response to the recent attack, Israel may exert pressure on its ally, the US, to impose stricter sanctions on Iran. The enforcement of such sanctions, particularly on Iranian oil exports, could result in a loss of anywhere between 0.5 million to 1 million barrels per day of oil supply. This would likely keep the oil market in deficit for the remainder of the year, contradicting the Biden administration’s wish to maintain oil and gasoline prices at sustainable levels ahead of the election. While other OPEC nations have spare capacity, utilizing it would tighten the global oil market even further. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for example, could collectively produce an additional almost 3 million barrels of oil per day if necessary.

Furthermore, both Iran and the US have expressed a desire to prevent further escalation. However, much depends on Israel’s response to the recent barrage of rockets. While Israel has historically refrained from responding violently to attacks (1991), the situation remains fluid. If Israel chooses not to respond forcefully, the US may be compelled to promise stronger enforcement of sanctions on Iranian oil exports. Consequently, Iranian oil exports are at risk, regardless of whether a wider confrontation ensues in the Middle East.

Analyzing the potential impact, approximately 2.2 million barrels per day of net Iranian crude and condensate exports could be at risk, factoring in Iranian domestic demand and condensate production. The effectiveness of US sanctions enforcement, however, remains uncertain, especially considering China’s stance on Iranian oil imports.

Despite these uncertainties, the market outlook remains cautiously optimistic for now, with Brent Crude expected to hover around the USD 90 per barrel mark in the near term. Navigating through geopolitical tensions and fundamental factors, the oil market continues to adapt to evolving conflicts in the Middle East and beyond.

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