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Iran vows to avenge death of general; oil market on high alert

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Brent futures surge almost 5%

Attacks on Middle East energy infrastructure likely

Growing threat of supply disruptions

London — Iran has pledged to avenge US air strikes that killed its top commanders, severely raising the risk of more attacks by Iran against Middle Eastern and US interests in the region, which could impact oil production and supplies.

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Crude futures surged by almost 5% Friday after the US confirmed it had killed Iran's top military commander General Qassim Soleimani in air strikes in Baghdad.

"A harsh revenge is awaiting the criminals who soaked their evil hand in his blood, and other martyrs of the last night's incident," Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a statement.

At 1231 GMT, front-month ICE Brent March crude futures were up $2.55/b from Thursday's settle at $68.80/b, while the front-month NYMEX February light sweet crude futures contract was $2.26/b higher at $63.44/b. ICE March Brent crossed a three-and-half-month high of $69.50/b in London morning trade.

Sara Vakhshouri, president of SVB Energy International said the "Qassim Soleimani risk premium" could "potentially" be higher than the recent attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities.

"The ambiguity and uncertainty over Iran's retaliatory actions create a huge uncertainty and risk factor for the oil prices and market," said Vakhshouri.

"Iran likes to surprise its adversaries and has a habit of attacking its enemies from an angle that they have never expected it, hence it is not easy to clearly expect what would be Iran's retaliatory actions and their impact on the short-term and long-term oil production and supply flow from the Middle East," she added.

'SEISMIC EVENT'

The killing of General Soleimani also increases the likelihood of additional attacks on Middle East energy infrastructure and the possibility of military conflict between the US and Iran, analysts said.

"The US strike against Iran's top two signals a worrying increase in the tensions between the two nations. Crude oil has responded as it should with the risk of supply disruptions driving the price higher," said Saxo Bank commodity strategist Ole Hansen. "Further upside risks now obviously depend on the response from Iran but also other actors in the region such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and China."

"This is a seismic event in the region," Jason Bordoff, director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, tweeted Thursday. "Abqaiq was just the beginning."

Rapidan Energy views Iran's most likely next oil targets as refineries in Yanbu, a Red Sea port in western Saudi Arabia; the Safaniya oil field in the Persian Gulf, the world's largest offshore oil field, and stabilization towers in the Khurais oil field, which were previously attacked on September 14.

Iran has also repeatedly issued threats to close or disrupt traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, should the US sanctions block its oil shipments. The Strait of Hormuz is a critical chokepoint through which 30% of the world's seaborne oil transits.

The US Department of Defense said this act was in response to his role in attacks on American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region, including his approval of the attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad this week.

"The strike was aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans," the Pentagon said. "The United States will continue to take all necessary action to protect our people and our interests wherever they are around the world."

REPERCUSSIONS IN IRAQ

The killing of Soleimani on Iraqi soil is expected to have repercussions in OPEC's second-largest oil producer.

Some international oil companies in Iraq have already started evacuating expatriate workers from their bases in southern Iraq and have stepped up security, according to sources.

Iraqi oil production and exports have so far been unaffected according to the country's oil ministry.

The ministry however said US citizens working for foreign oil companies have left Basra at the "request of their government."

"At a minimum American citizens and institution in the region are at imminent risk. US energy companies operating in Iraq could certainly be targeted in reprisal attacks," said Helima Croft, global head of commodity strategy at RBC Capital Markets.

MAXIMUM PRESSURE

The killing of Soleimani is another chapter in the Trump administration's maximum pressure campaign against Iran, which include sweeping sanctions on oil and other exports.

Iranian oil exports have plunged in the past year due to US sanctions crippling the country's oil export revenues.

Iranian oil exports, which averaged more than 1.7 million b/d in March, fell below 500,000 b/d in September and October, based on estimates compiled from shipping sources and cFlow, Platts trade flow software.

Exports were around 400,000 b/d in November, according to preliminary Platts estimates.

Iran's production has fallen to its lowest level in more than three decades. Iran produced an average of 2.43 million b/d last year from 3.57 million b/d and 3.79 million b/d in 2018 and 2017 respectively, according to Platts estimates.

The country has had to resort to floating storage for its oil to cope with the surplus it has due to sanctions.

Iran's oil tankers are holding almost 60 million barrels of oil at sea, the highest since more than three years, according to Platts estimates.

-- Eklavya Gupte, eklavya.gupte@spglobal.com

-- Brian Scheid, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

-- Avantika Ramesh, avantika.ramesh@spglobal.com

-- Aresu Eqbali, newsdesk@spglobal.com

-- Edited by Paul Hickin, newsdesk@spglobal.com