US crude surges more than 2%, settling at $61.63, its best closing price since December 2014

  • U.S. crude oil prices rise to the highest level in 2½ years, topping $61 a barrel.
  • Concerns over protests in Iran, OPEC's third biggest oil producer, have roiled markets.
  • Analysts warn that there is no direct threat to Iran's oil exports and the market has gotten very bullish on crude, potentially setting up a pullback.

Oil prices hit fresh highs on Wednesday, with U.S. crude topping $61 a barrel for the first time in 2½ years, as the broader market got a boost from strong economic data and as a week of unrest in Iran continued.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude ended Wednesday's session up $1.26, or 2.1 percent, at $61.63, posting its best closing price since December 2014.

International benchmark Brent crude settled $1.27, or 1.9 percent, higher at $67.84, also a closing high going back to December 2014.

Oil futures took part in a broader market rally on Wednesday following strong U.S. manufacturing data and figures that showed German unemployment at a record low, said John Kilduff, founding partner at energy hedge fund Again Capital.

"Oil got bought up with everything else. This economic data this morning was impressive to say the least," he said.

"It just speaks to something we don't talk about a lot, which is the demand side of the equation."

Brent could be headed toward $70 a barrel, while U.S. crude has a shot at breaking into the $65 to $67 range, Kilduff said.

Concerns over protests in Iran, OPEC's third largest oil producer, have boosted crude prices this week, even though analysts say the country's supplies face no immediate risks.

"Iranian oil production is unlikely to be disrupted in the near term unless the oil workers go on strike, and there is nothing yet to indicate that this is going to occur," said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

The gains came despite signs that U.S. drillers continue to pump more as prices rise. U.S. oil output is quickly approaching all-time highs above 10 million barrels a day set in the 1970s.

Pipeline outages in the U.K. North Sea and Libya have also been resolved, removing a catalyst that sent oil prices higher in December.

Some analysts say the current mid-2015 highs are unsustainable in light of financial positioning among traders. The number of bets that oil prices will continue to rise has risen sharply in recent weeks, while bets that prices will fall have sunk.

Oil prices fell more than 20 percent between December 2016 and June after the gap between bullish and bearish wagers expanded.