Between the Libyan revolution and the shaky US and European economies, oil markets hadn't been paying much attention to Iran's nuclear program until last week's release of a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA.) For the first time, the IAEA presented a detailed picture of a well-organized Iranian effort encompassing projects and technologies that go beyond what could reasonably be construed as having purely civilian purposes. Traders are once again talking about an "Iran risk premium," though the market's initial response has been sufficiently muted that it's hard to distinguish from other factors, such as the narrowing of the spread between West Texas Intermediate and Brent crude and worries about the Euro. As long as the international reaction to Iran remains confined to the well-worn pattern of diplomatic protests followed by incrementally tweaked sanctions that dampen speculation about military options, oil will probably just exhibit some extra volatility.
I've been following this issue for a long time, and almost from the start I've been skeptical of the Iranian government's insistence that their nuclear effort was aimed only at producing electricity. Iran has cheaper and less controversial energy options in abundance. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the IAEA report was that the agency would risk the controversy inherent in releasing a thorough accounting of Iran's efforts to develop capabilities unique to designing and building a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on a missile. Moreover, the report suggests that at least some of these activities did not end in 2003, as the controversial US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 concluded, but "may still be ongoing."
The oil market risk has several dimensions, the most obvious of which relates to a preemptive attack by the US or Israel. Yet even a stepped-up sanctions regime might either directly impede oil exports from Iran or provoke an Iranian reaction having the same effect, at a time when oil prices are already relatively high. Either scenario might trigger an oil price spike that would largely undo recent efforts to revive the global economy. At the moment, however, neither outcome seems very likely to me.
Whatever the IAEA's findings indicate about Iran's intentions or proximity to becoming a nuclear weapons state, the US has little appetite for initiating an attack with such uncertain outcomes on the basis of intelligence that remains incomplete. The public is hardly clamoring for another war, and the administration seems understandably reticent to take such a step, particularly going into an election year. Israeli public opinion--and even its leaders--appear split on the advisability of independent action against Iran's nuclear complex. Even in terms of sanctions, I would expect a response with more bark than bite that stops short of antagonizing Iran's regime to the point at which it might use its oil weapon. Unfortunately, the longer this protracted confrontation over Iran's nuclear program drags out, the greater the risk of one or more parties miscalculating, with results that could spin out of anyone's control.
The Council on Foreign Relations has put out some useful interviews and analysis on the IAEA report and the possible responses to it. Have a look and draw your own conclusions.