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Donald Trump's battering of Iran is affecting the cost of oil

Posted October 5, 2018 7:38 a.m. EDT

— What four letters spark the ire of President Donald Trump more than almost any other? O-P-E-C. This week, oil prices marched to another four-year high.

Why has this happened? There is a growing chorus insisting that Washington's policy against Iran has ratcheted up geopolitical tensions and could knock out up to 2 million barrels a day of Iran's exports. This has sparked a surge in prices two months after the US "snapback" sanctions against Tehran took effect.

"Let's be frank, such oil prices are to some extent the result of the US administration. I'm talking about sanctions against Iran, about political problems in Venezuela and just looking at what's happening in Libya," Russian President Vladimir Putin said during an annual energy conference in Moscow.

Trump has singled out the 15-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries on a handful of occasions to release more oil onto the market. But the most recent example -- Trump's recent address to the UN General Assembly -- a senior OPEC source said takes the verbal attacks and tweets to an alarming level.

"OPEC and OPEC nations are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world, and I don't like it. Nobody should like it. We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. Not good," Trump said.

As if that were not enough, the US Congress began debate Wednesday on the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, so-called NOPEC legislation to lift immunity on sovereign states and punish them for energy price collusion.

The President has criticized OPEC as an organization but has made implicit reference to his allies in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

This effort to target the major Gulf exporters in Trump's mind is a quid pro quo: He backs a tougher line against the Gulf states' regional archrival Iran and in return, they supply crude to bring down oil prices.

"We protect the countries of the Middle East, they would not be safe for very long without us, and yet they continue to push for higher and higher oil prices. We will remember. The OPEC monopoly must get prices down now!" he tweeted.

Trump does not welcome the more measured approach decided by OPEC and non-OPEC producers at their last committee meeting in Algiers.

Saudi Arabian Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih made it clear the kingdom was poised to release more oil onto the market, but only when there were real orders made by its customers. It pledged at the OPEC meeting in June to release up to 1 million barrels a day in the second half of the year -- and energy analysts say it is halfway there.

The Saudi minister and his Russian counterpart, Alexander Novak, are walking a tightrope. They do not want to see a repeat of 2016 or 2008. When oil prices spiked higher, major producers released more crude, and the market collapsed, with the international benchmark crude, North Sea Brent, tumbling to below $30 a barrel during both crises.

But the multibillion-dollar question today is this: Are prices trading above $80 due to a shortage of supplies? Or is it the ratcheting up of geopolitical tensions by Trump himself against Iran?

"The current market conditions cannot be attributed to us or our actions," Mohammed Sanusi Barkindo, OPEC's secretary-general, told CNN during a phone interview after Trump's speech to the United Nations.

"Stability in the oil market has always been our objective. Geopolitics is a huge challenge," Barkindo added, referring to the pressure applied to one of the organization's founding members, Iran.

Sources at state-oil giant Saudi Aramco insist there is no shortage of oil and point to the latest survey by JBC Energy, which states that due to US trade measures, demand is beginning to tail off outside the United States.

And there is more of the same in the pipeline coming from the United States against Iran, with Trump promising to impose additional measures against Tehran after the second round of snapback sanctions targeting oil exports, which take place November 4.

Therein lies the conundrum. Trump seems determined to maximize economic sanctions against Iran by pushing oil exports to zero and to force a retreat in what is called the Shia Crescent that reaches to Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.

At the same time, he does not want higher oil prices becoming an economic factor during midterm elections in November just as gas prices move higher.

"I say you cannot have your cake and eat it, too. You cannot have Iran at zero and as well as prices lower. These two cannot go together," said Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, Iran's governor to OPEC and longtime diplomat in the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The governor admitted that Iran's exports are already down by 650,000 barrels a day, from an official figure of 2.8 million in June. The Institute of International Finance pegged that drop at 800,000 barrels, pushing Iran into a recession of negative 3% this year and deepening to 4% in 2019.

In the meantime, the five other signatories to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement are scrambling to set up a barter mechanism, which would allow Tehran to continue exporting its crude by avoiding trade in the US dollar.

"I think when he (Trump) goes to the end of his reasoning, he'll see it's actually good for oil prices to be able to sell again. It's good for peace and it's also good for the world price of oil," French President Emmanuel Macron said.

That is the political view. But chief executives of the big energy companies such as Total of France, BP and Royal Dutch Shell have said that effort is a nonstarter due to their US shareholdings and dependency on Wall Street for financing projects.

No one, it seems, wants to challenge Trump when it comes to Iran. He has declared that those who do not comply with the US sanctions regime will face "severe consequences."

The same, unfortunately for the US President, could be said for the price of oil as well, with many expecting $100 a barrel by the close of 2018.