Filomena Scalise

New York - Oil prices fell below $97 a barrel on Monday on signs that the United States and Iran may restart nuclear negotiations.

In midday trading in New York, benchmark oil for March delivery was down $1.43 to $96.34 a barrel. Oil prices have been rising steadily since they traded near $86 a barrel in mid-December as hopes rose for an improving world economy.

When economies grow, shippers and travellers use more gasoline and diesel, pushing up demand for oil to make the fuels.

Brent crude, the benchmark used to set prices for oil used by many US refineries, was down $1.04 to $115.72 in London.

For much of the past two years, tensions in the Middle East have helped keep oil prices high by crimping supplies and raising fears that supplies could be cut even further. Western nations have taken steps to stem the flow of crude out of Iran to try to convince the country to stop what the West says is a programme to develop a nuclear weapon.

In response Iran has threatened to disrupt the flow of oil through the Middle East.

On Saturday, while on a visit in Germany, Vice-President Joe Biden said Washington was ready for direct talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is only for peaceful purposes. The Iranian foreign minister on Sunday welcomed Biden's gesture but did not commit to taking up the offer.

Negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany have made little progress and analysts welcomed the possibility of direct talks.

“It seems that small steps in that direction have started,” said Olivier Jakob of Petromatrix in Switzerland. “The US had its election, Israel had its election but Iran still needs to go through its elections in June and that could still be a delay in the formal process but already a small change of dynamics will be important.”

If Iranian oil that is now embargoed can return to the market, supplies will rise and prices could fall. - Sapa-AP