Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the last week pushing US President Donald Trump off his Iran sanctions ledge. Crude prices jumped to multi-year highs after Trump dismissed the international nuclear deal with Tehran as "insane".

The White House can't turn a blind eye to Israeli nuclear intelligence but America's commander in chief would look economically reckless to ignore oil market warnings and jump.

Trump's timing on Iran couldn't be worse for major oil consumers. After 16 months of enforced production cuts by Opec and its allies, oil inventories have reached a critical inflection point.

Stocks held by companies in developed nations are nearing five-year moving averages. For the Vienna-based group, this implies mission accomplished but for major consuming nations, Iran's crude is once again in high demand.

Advertisement

The price of crude oil has soared 50.2 per cent in the past year to US69.72.

The problem is no one can accurately predict Trump's next move when the latest opportunity to act on Iran arrives on May 12.

However, crude should be a major factor in his thinking. Opec's third-largest producer after Saudi Arabia and Iraq is now pumping out more than 3.8 million barrels a day (b/d) of oil and its output is growing. Without the shackles of tougher US sanctions dragging it back, S&P Global Platts Analytics expects Iran to add another 220,000 b/d of production by the end of 2019.

Some experts argue that re-imposing tougher embargoes on Tehran could remove about a quarter of the country's current output. But who needs it anyway?

Since the original nuclear deal was struck with six world powers in 2015, Iran has regained its lost share of the global oil market, much to the annoyance of its Middle East rival, Saudi Arabia. Most of its crude currently heads to China's refiners, followed by customers in Europe, India and South Korea.

"US allies including South Korea and Japan would likely reduce their purchases and a couple [of] hundred thousand barrels a day of crude exports could be at risk by the first half of 2019," said Paul Sheldon at S&P Global Platts Analytics.

Opec isn't helping Trump to make up his mind either way. The cartel has been discussing extending its production cuts with Russia and a group of smaller producers beyond this year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the last week pushing US President Donald Trump off his Iran sanctions ledge. Picture / AP
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spent the last week pushing US President Donald Trump off his Iran sanctions ledge. Picture / AP

These talks have pushed up prices and raised fears that kingpin Saudi Arabia wants a return of US$100 ($142) oil. Imposing renewed sanctions on Iran at a time when US petrol prices are testing multi-year highs close to US$3 a gallon could be just as politically damaging from the Trump perspective as would ignoring the justifiable geopolitical concerns about Iran.

Advertisement

The security of higher US production probably won't help make Trump's decision any easier either.

Domestic output is projected to exceed 11 million barrels a day by the end of the year. Despite America's growing influence as a producer, the president has already pointed the finger at Opec for allegedly engineering higher prices.

Still, America's motorists will probably blame the group if they are hit with rocketing fuel costs this summer instead of any presidential decision to isolate Iran.

Of course, some of Trump's closest oil-rich allies in the Middle East could help mitigate the risks. Saudi Arabia has at least 2 million barrels a day of spare production capacity on tap, which it could deploy instantly to make up for any loss of Iranian barrels.

Riyadh would also be foolish to miss the opportunity of seizing back market share from Tehran even if it endangers its long-term collaboration with Russia and the rest of Opec.

A decision not to waive oil-related sanctions on Iran next month could irreparably fracture Russia's alliance with Opec if the kingdom opens its spigots.

However, even if Trump attempts to toughen up on Iran with new sanctions, their impact on the country's oil industry could be ineffective.

China would be unlikely to shun Iran as an energy supplier. Meanwhile, European policymakers would also likely seek a compromise to keep energy links with Tehran open. Trump could also soften the blow by giving crude buyers an adjustment period of 180 days.

"Any sanctions are unlikely to be as effective as those in 2012 given changed international views regarding Iran," said Jamie Webster, senior director at the Boston Consulting Group's Centre for Energy Impact.

Europe's international oil companies (IOCs) are also watching Trump's decision. Despite the president's well documented distrust of the Iranian regime, they have been cautiously willing to do business and gain access to the world's fourth-largest reserves of crude and a share of the biggest offshore natural gas field on the planet, South Pars.

Iran's oil minister Bijan Zanganeh has warned French company Total its deal would be expensive if it suddenly pulled back in response to unilateral US sanctions. Picture / AP
Iran's oil minister Bijan Zanganeh has warned French company Total its deal would be expensive if it suddenly pulled back in response to unilateral US sanctions. Picture / AP

Starved of international capital and hard cash, Tehran desperately needs to attract investment from IOCs to develop new fields and update its ageing energy infrastructure. However, a rush by oil majors to return to Iran didn't happen after the 2015 nuclear deal was struck.

Shell signed a preliminary deal in December to develop Iranian oil and gas fields but plays down its commitment. Italy's Eni has also committed to study potential projects.

Even BP, which won the first concession in 1901 to search for oil and gas in Persia, has recently opened a small office in Tehran.

However, it is French oil major Total that is the most exposed. Last July, it signed a major deal with an initial investment of US$1 billion to develop the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf. Iran's oil minister Bijan Zanganeh has warned Total its deal would be expensive if it suddenly pulled back in response to unilateral US sanctions.

"If Total, without the enforcement of (UN) Security Council sanctions, announces that it has the intention to leave the contract, no capital will be returned to this company and no sum will be transferred to the company," Zanganeh was quoted as saying last November by the Iranian oil ministry's news service.

Of course, Tehran can easily cause issues for Trump by stirring up trouble in the Middle East, where over a fifth of the world's oil is produced. The Islamic republic is already acting behind the scenes in Yemen and Syria. An escalation in both war zones could threaten the region's major energy supply arteries such as the Strait of Hormuz, which is used to ferry 18.5 million barrels a day.

These are the oily issues Trump's team must weigh before he jumps off the ledge on Iran.