Oil prices could spiral out of control and potentially herald deeper economic hardship for Europe if the European Union joins the US in banning Iranian oil imports, analysts warned on Friday.
EU officials said on Wednesday that European governments agreed in principle to ban imports of Iranian oil. China also suggested it would back US-led sanctions.
But several countries within the EU are heavily reliant on oil imports from Iran, and none more so than economically struggling Greece, which currently imports 30 percent of its domestic oil from the country, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
Greece’s economy is already mired in deep recession and could feasibly collapse entirely if the sanctions were imposed, Paul Stevens, economist and emeritus professor at Dundee University in Scotland, told CNBC.
Were that to happen, the Greek economy could take its European neighbors down with it. But the likelihood would be that Greece would have to ignore the import ban and that the EU would have to allow it to in order to avert economic disaster.
“Let’s assume the European Union is stupid enough to go along with the US in imposing sanctions on Iran. That would only mean 250,000 barrels of heavy sour oil not coming into the EU,” Stevens said.
“But the impact that would have on countries like Italy and Greece would be enormous, and the Greeks are not going to slit their own throats for the sake of an EU sanction when Iran is the only country willing to offer them oil on favorable terms. It would utterly destroy the Greek economy.”
On Thursday Saudi Arabia announced that it was ready to fill any gaps in the oil supplyif needed, but market-watchers cast doubt on that possibility.
Analysts from Commerzbank said such a move by the Saudis would use up virtually all of that country’s spare capacity. The last time that happened, in 2008, oil prices climbed to almost $150 a barrel.
And Stevens recently questioned Saudi Arabia’s continued ability to fill gaps in the oil supply in the future, predicting in a report for the UK foreign affairs think tank Chatham House, that its own domestic oil consumption could threaten its position as the world’s largest oil exporter and consequently pose a threat to the global economy.
Jeremy Batstone-Carr, director of private client research at investment house Charles Stanley, told CNBC.com it was very hard to get an accurate assessment of what the world’s oil reserves currently are.
“At the moment, it is impossible to make accurate predictions about anything. Even people I speak to in the oil industry don’t know what the oil price will be at the end of the year. A friend of mine who works for an oil company said his best guess was that, by and large, the price of oil would be the same as it is now,” he added.
Military Action Poses Economic Threat
Equally inflationary to oil prices—and dangerous for the global economy—is if military conflict breaks out between Iran and the West. Iran has threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuzfollowing the announcement of US sanctions and given the already obvious tensions between the two countries fears over a military conflict have grown.
Stevens said any such conflict in the Middle East between Iran and the US would have a catastrophic effect on oil prices.
“If the US [were to] escalate tensions with Iran, and if there is any military engagement, all bets will be off. Pick any number and then double it, as soon as the first missiles are launched, and that will be the oil price,” he said.
What seemed more likely however to Batstone-Carr, was an easing of tensions between Iran and the West before the end of the month, which would then feed into oil prices.
“My sense on the geopolitical situation is it’s saber-rattling on the part of Iran. If it were serious about closing the Hormuz Strait, I suspect it would do it first, rather than tell the world it was going to do it,” he said.
That view was reinforced when Iran’s foreign minister Akbar Salehi appeared to indicate on Thursday evening at a joint press conference with the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu that his country was willing to reopen negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, suggesting the West had possibly won an international game of chicken.
Of course, that may have been what the White House had intended to achieve all along. But whether it will have the ability to pull off such diplomatic tricks in the future is far from certain.