Oil angst may fuel Iran’s nuclear quest

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — Any analysis posing Iran as a potential threat to peace in the Middle East is generally based on the assumption that its aggressive pursuit of nuclear power can only have the most ominous consequences for the region.

After all, the argument goes, the country has substantial oil resources and is one of the most important petroleum exporters in the world. So nuclear power is unnecessary for its own energy needs.

That view, however convenient, is now being challenged by industry analysts who indicate that Iran may have significantly diminished oil-export capabilities in the relatively near future. If this assessment is correct, there is an urgent need for a re-evaluation of Iran as a “regional threat” to peace and for a closer look at its need to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

According to Roger Stern, a researcher of Johns Hopkins University, Iran’s petroleum exports could hit rock-bottom by 2014 or 2015. In an article published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Stern enumerates as the principal factors for this rapid decline the regime’s hostility to foreign investment, its exaggerated energy subsidies and the inefficiency of a state-planned economy.

The Iranian government is now attempting to correct the first problem through energy agreements with several Asian countries. China Petrochemical Corp. (Sinopec) has been invited to conclude an agreement, proposed in 2004, to develop Iran’s Yadavaran oil field.

Separately, in 2003 three Japanese companies bought a 20 percent stake in the development of the Soroush-Nowruz offshore field in the Persian Gulf. And now India is looking with considerable interest to Iran to satisfy its growing energy needs.

At present, Iran is producing 3.7 million barrels of oil a day — 300,000 barrels below the quota set for Iran by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and this, according to Stern, represents an annual loss of about $5.5 billion.

Since oil exports are Iran’s principal source of revenue, Stern concludes that a major decline in oil exports could place the government in a politically vulnerable position. The picture grows more complex when examined against the background of recent U.N. sanctions against Iran plus Tehran’s setbacks in recent elections.

The sanctions — approved conditionally by China and Russia — have not deterred Iran from uranium-enrichment activities. Indeed, they have hardened the Iranian government’s resolve to continue on its current path. The elections signaled a comeback of reform-minded politicians, and they are generally considered a setback for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — not for Iran’s nuclear program.

With Iranians increasingly facing economic hardships and rising unemployment, Ahmadinejad may be trying to mask the problems with his confrontational approach to foreign policy issues. Should sanctions lead to a falloff of foreign investment, the economic concerns of ordinary Iranians would certainly be aggravated.

Stern’s predictions of a substantial decline in Iran’s oil-exporting capacities are also supported by former officials of the National Iranian Oil Co., according to whom petroleum exports could well hit zero in the next 12 to 19 years.

All of which gives credence to the Iranian government’s claim that a pressing need exists for exploiting nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

Given this background, it would be wiser for other nations to insist that Iran accept further controls on its nuclear production and to engage the Iranian government in diplomacy and dialogue rather than to increase tensions through confrontation.

If political accommodations were possible with Pakistan despite its diffusion of nuclear technology globally, and if India is to be provided with advanced nuclear technology despite its explosive relationship with Pakistan, is not the containment of Iran’s nuclear-power ambitions within the realm of possibility?

Many have advocated attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, a path too hazardous to even contemplate seriously. Given its strategic location, an Iranian counterattack could wreak havoc in the region and represent a grave threat to world peace. Never has diplomacy been more needed in the region.