Gas Prices Down, but Iran, Economy to Determine If Trend Holds

Friday's average of $3.734 is down almost 7 cents from a week ago, and 18 cents from a month ago.

Gas prices are displayed at an Exxon gas station in Washington, D.C.

The national average for gas prices is now almost $3.83 per gallon, according to Thursday's AAA Daily Fuel Gauge.

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After wallet-busting trips to the gas station earlier this year, many consumers might have sworn off summer road trips and other vacation plans involving lots of driving.

And for good reason—while they failed to breach the previous all-time high of $4.11 set in July 2008, U.S. gas prices reached their highest January and February levels on record this year, prompting some experts to forecast fuel costs exceeding $5 or $6 a gallon.

But with the recent downward trend in gas prices, packing everyone up in the family SUV and driving to Yellowstone might once again be a viable and (somewhat) affordable getaway.

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Just ahead of peak driving season, Friday's average of $3.734 is down almost 7 cents, marking the steepest one-week decline since November. Prices are also down about 18 cents from a month ago, making gas prices cheaper than they were a year ago.

But will gas prices continue their downward march or spike up again, putting a dent in consumers' summer spending cash?

It depends on a variety of factors, not least of all crude oil prices, which have eased in recent weeks to their lowest level since February, primarily due to the relative calm in the Middle East. But whether oil prices will remain lower hinges on the negotiations currently taking place over Iran's nuclear program, experts say.

"If those negotiations go well, then we could see a continuation of the current trend," says Gregg Laskoski, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com. If not, consumers around the world could be in for more sticker shock at the gas station.

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But the politicking happening overseas isn't the only thing that's caused gas prices to sink. Supplies of crude oil and gasoline are better than they've been in awhile, according to the Department of Energy. Given the lucrative prices gasoline has been fetching recently, refinery output has been strong, which has helped boost supply and put a lid on prices, Laskoski says.

"We have a healthy supply, and that adds to the downward trend in retail prices," he adds.

Relative tranquility in the Middle East and good reserves are positive reasons why gas prices have been heading downward, but disappointing economic data at home has also had a hand in pushing down prices at the pump.

[Read: Americans Driving Less, Still Spending Cash On Cars.]

The last few months have seen anemic job growth, and if more Americans aren't getting back to work, fewer people will be commuting to work, keeping demand—and prices—for gasoline lower, experts say.

But just as fears of $5- and $6-a-gallon gas failed to materialize, prices aren't likely to sink to under $3 as a fresh contingent of observers has suggested. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, according to Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at the Oil Price Information Service.

"There are a lot of folks who were predicting $5 a gallon when prices were heading up, now they're predicting less than $3 a gallon. Neither is going to happen," Kloza told CNNMoney. "I'd say that $3.50 for a national average is probably as good as it's going to get."

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.