Part of a sentence was omitted from John H. Lichtblau's article on the Friday op-ed page. The sentence should have read: Since the risk off deploying our naval forces in the Gulf war region has already been tragicallly demonstrated with the attack on the USS Stark, we must ask whether access to Middle East oil is currently so threatened that immediate action is required. (Published 6/28/87)
In his latest speech and also at his Venice summit press conference, President Reagan cited the security of oil supplies as a principal reason for his new policy of an active U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. In an earlier, more elaborate statement he had pointedly evoked "the woeful impact of the Middle East oil crisis of a few years ago: the endless demoralizing gas lines" and then declared, "I'm determined our national economy will never again be held captive."
Since the risk of deploying our naval forces in the Gulf war region has already been tragically demonstrated with the attack on the USS Stark, we must ask whether access to Middle East oil is required.
The first relevant fact to consider is that the supply of readily available Middle East oil is currently so large that the producers' real problem is to avoid exporting excessive quantities which would again threaten the OPEC price structure. This has been the case throughout the seven years of the Iran-Iraq war. During this period the principal attacker on Gulf oil shipping has, of course, been Iraq, which has tried to block Iranian oil exports by bombing the Kharg Island Terminal and the tankers carrying oil from there. Except for brief periods, Iraq has not been particularly successful in this endeavor. In the past several months Iraqi attacks have, in fact, been so sporadic and minimal that Iranian oil exports have been largely unaffected.
Current attention is more focused on the other tanker war in the Gulf: the Iranian attacks on Kuwait. Iran perceives Kuwaiti oil as a surrogate for Iraqi oil, which is beyond its reach, since all Iraqi exports are overland by pipeline or truck. Iran's perception is based on Kuwait's public support of the Iraqi war effort. So far the attacks have been too small and too sporadic to affect Kuwait's oil production or exports. Oil-field sabotage, instigated by Iran, is probably a more serious threat to Kuwait's oil than tanker sinkings.
Amid this continuing oil glut, President Reagan says "there is no way we can sit back and let the Persian Gulf be closed to international trade." True, but who would want to close it? Certainly not Iran, which the president described as the "barbaric" potential perpetrator. An effective blockage of the Persian Gulf would arrest all Iranian oil exports, since all must traverse the Straits of Hormuz, while Iraqi exports would remain unaffected but would greatly benefit from the inevitable price increase.
Of course, anything can happen in a war. Thus, a massive escalation of the attacks on ships to the point of making the Gulf too risky for commercial traffic cannot be ruled out. But this is clearly not the case now. If it were to happen, the United States and other industrial nations could mitigate its impact considerably for the first few months by drawing on their strategic petroleum reserves, which were built up for just this purpose. In addition, there is substantial ready excess producing capacity outside the Gulf. This would give us time to plan our strategy.
There may be overriding geopolitical reasons for our new militancy in the Gulf. From the point of view of oil supplies, however, we need not go beyond our established doctrine, first proclaimed by President Carter and just reaffirmed by all summit participants, that the Gulf must remain open to international commercial traffic at all times.
Our allies, who are far more dependent on Middle East oil than we, are apparently far less concerned about a disruption. They have publicly accepted our new policy, but none has encouraged it or is now actively supporting it. The same goes for the nonbelligerent Gulf producers, other than Kuwait. Their concern, as expressed recently in the Saudi daily al-Nadwa, is that "the presence of superpower fleets in the Gulf will lead to a disaster in the region." This may be an exaggeration. But there is an acknowledged risk factor in our new Gulf policy. To take this risk for the purpose of protecting our access to Middle East oil may be unwarranted as long as there is no tangible threat to its flow. The writer is president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation.