01/04/2012 04:54 EST | Updated 03/04/2012 05:12 EST

Oil inches lower toward US$102 in Asia as traders eye improving US economy, Iran tensions

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Oil prices were little changed Wednesday as traders booked profits after a four per cent surge at the start of the year.

Benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude rose 26 cents to finish at US$103.22 per barrel in New York. Brent crude rose $1.15 to US$113.28 a barrel in London.

Prices jumped Tuesday on concerns that Iran might try to close off the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf if the United States and other western countries impose further economic sanctions because of Iran's nuclear program.

One-sixth of the world's oil exports move through the strait. Traders say they're now waiting to see if the situation heats up following Iran's military exercises over the weekend.

"It'll take something big" in Iran to drive prices much higher, analyst and trader Stephen Schork said. "You're going to need to see mines being laid or bullets flying or something."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Commerce Department said that orders for computers, electronic equipment and other "core capital goods" fell for the second month in November as the American economy recovers in fits and starts.

In other energy trading, heating oil rose five cents to finish at US$3.09 a U.S. gallon (3.79 litres), while gasoline futures rose about four cents to end at US$2.79 a gallon. Natural gas rose 10 cents to finish the day at $3.10 per 1,000 cubic feet.