Crude Ends Near Flat; Traders Weigh Iran Concerns

NEW YORK (Dow Jones)

Crude futures ended near flat Monday as investors weighed a meeting between the leaders of U.S. and Israel to discuss Iran, and China cut its target for economic growth.

Light, sweet crude for April delivery settled 2 cents higher at $106.72 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after wavering between gains and losses for most of the session. Brent crude on the ICE futures exchange was recently 39 cents higher at $123.71 a barrel.

President Barack Obama sought to ease a growing rift between his administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during talks between the two leaders Monday, saying U.S. support for Israel is "rock solid." The statement followed a speech by Obama on Sunday that warned against "loose talk of war," and helped lower oil traders' worries of military action that could threaten crude supplies.

"There's no question that the rhetoric has cut back on the war talk," said Tony Rosado, a broker with GA Global Markets.

Concerns about a potential Israeli military strike on Iran and disruptions of Iran's 3.5 million barrels a day of oil production have been behind the sharp rise in oil prices over the past month.

Oil prices are up 8.7% since the beginning of February, boosted by fears over Iran and improving economic conditions in the U.S. and abroad that analysts expect will raise crude demand.

Investors will be looking toward monthly U.S. employment data later this week, but on Monday a cut to China's target for economic growth kept a lid on any oil-price gains.

China lowered its target for annual growth to 7.5% this year after aiming for 8% in each of the past seven years. The move indicates that the country is facing growing constraints to its decades of surging growth.

China is the world's largest consumer of energy, and one of the largest markets for many other commodities, including copper and grains. Commodity price increases over the past year have raised costs for exporters, and rising labor costs are also having an impact on growth.

Front-month April reformulated gasoline blendstock, or RBOB, settled 1.41 cents, or 0.4%, lower at $3.2580 a gallon. April heating oil settled 1.56 cents, or 0.5%, higher at $3.2174 a gallon.

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