The assassination of General Qassem Soleimani has created much speculation about the possible impact on oil markets and – although any impact will very much depend upon what happens next in terms of political and military responses – theoretically the potential exists for Iran to seriously destabilize oil markets, raising oil prices.
Arguably, it would be in Iran’s interest to do so. It would certainly hurt Trump’s possibility of a second term if higher prices were to last for some time as the 2020 presidential election gets underway. And it would also help shore up Iran’s failing economy.
The assassination did initially cause oil prices to rise by a few dollars before quickly falling back, and the missile attacks by Iran produced a similar response. However, direct action by Iran to raise prices – for example by trying to close the Strait of Hormuz – is unlikely.
Around one-fifth of the world’s oil supplies passes through the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow choke point between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula. Closing it would invite serious military action by the Americans and many of its allies who, so far, have been rather lukewarm over Trump’s actions. It would also possibly limit Iran’s own oil exports.
Similarly, overt attacks on American allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE would probably invite too heavy a reaction, although this is uncertain given the lack of response after the alleged Iranian attacks on Abqaiq and Khurais in mid-September.
Indirect action by Iran to affect oil supplies is much more likely as they have many options by using their proxies to affect others’ oil production. This is especially true for Iraq, which is now an important source of global oil supply as Iraqi exports in 2019 averaged 3.53 million barrels per day (Mb/d), a significant amount.
Iraq’s future production has already been damaged as international oil companies are withdrawing staff for safety reasons, anticipating potential attacks by both Iraqi and Iranian sources. It is now very unlikely that the crucial ‘common seawater supply project’ being run by Exxon – essential for expanding production capacity – will go ahead in the near future.
However, one important consequence of the assassination that has attracted little attention is that it has almost fully restored the role of geopolitics into the determination of oil prices. Up to 2014, geopolitics played a key role in determining oil prices in the paper markets where perceptions and expectations ruled.
Prices determined in these markets – NYMEX in New York, ICE in London and other lesser futures markets throughout the world – then influence wet barrel markets where real barrels of oil are traded.
In 2014, the world was so oversupplied with real oil barrels that the oil price collapsed – the price of Brent crude fell from $110.72 on 23 May to $46.44 eight months later. Thereafter, little if any attention was given to geopolitical events, and geopolitics became marginalized in the determination of crude oil prices.
This began to change in 2019. The market remained physically over-supplied but events in the Gulf began to attract attention. In June, there were a series of attacks on oil tankers close to the Gulf, followed by attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq processing facility and the Khurais oil field in September.
The Americans claimed these attacks were launched by Iran, but no convincing evidence for the claim was provided. Both attacks produced an initial price response but it was surprisingly limited and short-lived. However, it did suggest that geopolitics might be creeping back into influencing oil prices.
This became ever more noticeable in the third and fourth quarters as rumours regarding the trade talks between China and US clearly began to affect price – talks going well meant higher oil demand, and prices rose; talks going badly meant lower oil demand, and prices fell.
Meanwhile, the oil market showed signs of tightening towards the end of 2019. Although there was much cheating on the OPEC+ agreement that was trying to restrain production and protect prices, the OPEC meeting last December saw both Iraq and Nigeria agreeing to restrain production.
US stock levels also began to fall in December and the futures markets began to price in a tightening market towards the end of 2020. Significantly, the tighter the market appears, the greater attention is paid to the level of spare producing capacity.
Just before the attack on Abqaiq, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated there was 3.5 Mb/d spare capacity in OPEC which, historically, is quite comfortable. However, 2.5 of this was estimated to be in Saudi Arabia, so how much of this spare capacity still existed after the Abqaiq attack?
The Saudis claimed the Abqaiq capacity was quickly restored but technical experts greeted this with considerable skepticism, not least because the Abqaiq equipment was highly specialized. If spare capacity is tight, this makes the oil price vulnerable to geopolitical scares and rumours, real or imagined.
Although the assassination of General Soleimani has exacerbated the sensitivity of oil markets to geopolitical events, this becomes irrelevant if a serious shooting war starts in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Iraq’s oil infrastructure remains highly vulnerable to attack either directly by Iran or one of its many proxies, suggesting oil prices will become increasingly volatile but, at the same time, benefit from a rising geopolitical premium.