Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Singapore — Oil prices were near 2019 highs on Tuesday after Washington announced all Iran sanction waivers would end by May, putting pressure on importers to stop buying from Tehran.

Despite the move by Washington, observers like US bank Goldman Sachs said global oil markets would be able to cope with the Iran disruption as there was enough spare capacity from other suppliers.

Brent crude futures were at $74.29 per barrel at 0442 GMT, up 0.3% from their last close and not far off a 2019 peak of $74.52 reached on Monday.

US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures hit their highest level since October 2018 at $65.95 per barrel before edging back to $65.86 by 0239 GMT, which was still up 0.5% from their last settlement.

The US on Monday demanded that buyers of Iranian oil stop purchases by May 1 or face sanctions, ending six months of waivers which allowed Iran’s eight biggest buyers, most of them in Asia, to continue importing limited volumes.

Before the reimposition of sanctions in 2018, Iran was the fourth-largest producer among the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) at around 3-million barrels per day (bpd), but April exports have shrunk to below
1-million bpd, according to ship tracking and analyst data in Refinitiv.

The US government has in 2019 repeatedly said it wants to cut Iran’s oil exports below 1-million barrels bpd or even to zero, and that new action would be taken by May. Still, many analysts expected Washington to show more lenience towards importers most exposed to Iran.

Barclays Bank said in a note following the announcement that the decision took many market participants by surprise and that the move would “lead to a significant tightening of oil markets”.

The British bank added that Washington’s target to cut Iran oil exports to zero posed a “material upside risk to our current $70 per barrel average price forecast for Brent in 2019,  compared with the year-to-date average of $65 per barrel”.

The move to tighten Iran sanctions comes amid other sanctions Washington has placed on Venezuela’s oil exports and also as producer club Opec has led supply cuts since the start of 2019 aimed at tightening global oil markets and propping up crude prices.

Ellen Wald, nonresident senior fellow at the Global Energy Center of the Atlantic Council, said the US “seems to expect” Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to replace the Iranian oil, but she added “that this is not necessarily the way Saudi Arabia sees it”.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest exporter of crude oil and Opec’s de-facto leader. The group is set to meet in June to discuss its output policy.

US bank Goldman Sachs said an expected decline of 900,000 bpd in Iranian exports following the US decision to end all waivers stood “versus immediately available and demonstrated spare capacity of 2-million bpd, which is set to grow further later this year”, especially should Opec end its supply restraint.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic Council said the US move would hurt Iranian citizens.

“We’re going to see their currency collapse more, more unemployment, more inflation,” said Barbara Slavin, director for the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, adding that the US sanctions were “not going to bring Iran back to the (nuclear) negotiating table”.