New signs of declining American strength emerged from the OPEC meeting last week. Saudi Arabia and other countries friendly to the Unitied States failed to impose order on the chaotic international oil market.
They were beaten back by Iran and other states hostile to American interests. Now it is a question whether Washington can seize the moment to recoup the defeat in Caracas.
The battle fought within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries took place on a field of oil. But at issue was a contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Persian Gulf. As the Iranian delegate here, Ali Akbar Moinfar, remarked, the meeting was "100 percent political."
Instability in Iran has thrown the international oil market into a state of shock for most of the past year. The major industrial countries have been building stocks against a possible shortage next year. Those without access to bulk purchases of OPEC oil at relatively fixed prices have supplemented their regular rations by purchases on the spot market, which is usually reserved for small quantities of oil bought for short-term needs.
As a result of these purchases -- chiefly by West Germany and Japan -- spot market prices have soared to more than double the average of about $20 per barrel for contract oil. Several exporting countries -- notably Iran and Libya -- have moved to beak OPEC price guidelines by applying large surcharges to crude sold under contract, and by arranging to move larger portions of their crude from the contract to the spot markets.
Those practices pose grave problems for the whole world. There is a danger that soaring prices will drive the industrial countries into economic collapse. tThere is also a danger that recession in the industrial world would leave an oil glut that would boomerang against the OPEC countries with unpredictable results.
Under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, several countries friendly to the United States seized on the Caracas meeting as an opportunity to impose order upon the market. Before the meeting the saudis raised prices on their basic crude from $18 to $24 per barrel. They made it known they would regard $24 as the basic price, and would accept premiums ranging only from $2 to $3.50 per barrel. They said they would keep production high to avoid tight markets.
The Saudis were joined publicly in that effort by Venezuela and three Persian Gulf sheikdoms -- Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates: Iraq, which is now bitterly at odds with the Islamic regime next door, also joined the group, presumably in hope of isolating Iran.
But the Saudis ain't what they used to be inside OPEC. The recent shootout in Mecca advertised to the world the fragility of the royal regime. In particular, it showed Saudi vulnerability to Islamic fundamentalism and its implicit charge that friendship with Washington translates into toadying to American imperialism.
Iran, the hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, bucked the Saudi strategy by announcing it wanted oil prices at $35 per barrel. Libya, the home of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's Islamic republic, held out for over $30 per barrel. The Nigerians and Algerians who produce the same high-quality crude as the Libyans followed suit.
Long haggling between the parties -- including a rare Saudi offer to back away from the previously declared price -- yielded nothing. In the end, the meeting broke without setting a unified price.
The United States, of course, is a big loser. Not only does the rise in prices strike the American economy at an awkward moment. But Saudi Arabia, having flinched at the meeting here, is even more vulnerable to the Islamic fundamentalists.
Still, recession in the United States and large stocks open the prospect that demand will fall below supply, with an oil glut materializing next spring. The United States, together with Japan and the Europeans, could make the prospect of glut a near certainty by joint action to cut consumption still further. Once the glut had developed, the Iranians, Libyans, Algerians and Nigerians would bear the brunt of softer markets. Cards would thus be dealt to the countries more friendly to the United States who had sought, and still seek, to curb prices.
But action has to be taken quickly. If it is postponed until after the glut materializes, the present sense of urgency can be drowned in a surfeit of oil. In that case, when shortages develop again -- as they surely will later in the year and throughout the decade -- the defeat at Caracas will only be one more episode in a long catalog of blows to American power.