LONDON - Crude oil fell on Thursday, giving up earlier gains as investors took profit on a rally triggered by potential disruption to oil flows from major exporter Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions.
The United States said on Tuesday that it plans to impose new sanctions against Iran after abandoning an agreement reached in late 2015 that curbed Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for removal of U.S. and European sanctions.
Brent crude futures fell 29 cents to $76.92 a barrel by 1432 GMT, having risen earlier in the day to $78, their highest since November 2014.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate crude futures were last down 18 cents at $70.96.
"If you accept the fact that after Tuesday's decision the general mantra was that the oil market will stay volatile, then here we are ... price movement right now is pretty unpredictable," said PVM Oil Associates strategist Tamas Varga.
The oil price was still on track for its fourth consecutive quarterly gain, the longest such stretch for more than 10 years.
Analysts had little hope that opposition to the U.S. action would prevent sanctions from going ahead.
"Europe and China will not fight against the U.S. sanctions. They will grumble and accept it. There is no one who will realistically choose Iran over the U.S.," said energy consultancy FGE.
"We believe the previous 1 million bpd limit for exports (imposed during previous sanctions) will be reimposed. As before, it may take several rounds of reductions to reach target levels," FGE's founder and chairman Fereidun Fesharaki wrote in a note.
Even without disruption to Iran's crude flows, the balance between supply and demand in the oil market has been tightening steadily, especially in Asia, with top exporter Saudi Arabia and No.1 producer Russia having led efforts since 2017 to cap output to prop up prices.
Saudi Arabia is ready to offset any supply shortage but it will not act alone to fill the gap, an OPEC source familiar with the kingdom's oil thinking said on Wednesday.
"What the full impact on Iranian flows will be is still difficult to estimate," said Petromatrix strategist Olivier Jakob.
"One thing that has changed and which I think is clearly a new development is that it seems to me that the White House administration has really pushed Saudi Arabia to do something about price and to put supply back into the market to make sure prices do not run up ... before (when sanctions were last in place) Saudi Arabia was driving its own oil policy."
One factor that could partially mitigate any shortfall from Iran is soaring U.S. oil output.
The EIA on Tuesday raised its forecast for U.S. output in its monthly report to 12 million bpd late next year. The agency has raised its forecasts every month since last August.
This would make the United States the world's largest producer, ahead of both Russia and Saudi Arabia.