Last December at a summit meeting of the oil producing states Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Zaki Yamani promised that his country would increase oil production in the ensuing months to 10 million barrels a day. The industrialized countries breathed a world-wide sigh of relief.
The Saudi boost in production, it was generally reasoned, would put a downward pressure on world oil prices.
But the sigh of relief was premature.
Saudi production has hit 10 million barrels a day only one month since the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries meeting in Qatar, in April.
The Saudis claimed their failure to achieve the production goal was caused by bad weather during January and February in the Persian Gulf. But knowledge sources in the corporate and intelligence communities believe there are other reasons as well.
The evidence some specialists are now saying, is that the Saudis have no intention of meeting the 10 million-barrel goal.
One hint was that a month of Yamani's promise to boost production to the new level the Saudis Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, one of the most influential members of the Saudi governing hierarchy said. "We still have not taken a decision about increasing our production."
A major reason that the Saudis now seem to be reneging on their production commitment is what one analyst described as "extraordinary pressure" from the shah of Iran against such a move.
Enmity between the shah and the Saudis on pricing and production policy in the 13-member OPEC is a long-standing reality. Both are Persian Gulf neighbors with conservative, pro-American governments.
The Saudis, however, have regularly opted for moderate price increases while the shah has followed a far more aggressive price policy intended to underwrite his massive industrialization plans.
In addition the Iranian, whose oil revenues this year will be about $21 billion, need the inlusion of petrodollars to pay for massive arms purchases.
In January the shah's National Iranian Oil Co. announced that the Saudi decision to restrain price increase and boost production was costing Iran $6 million a day in revenues. Sources say that also in January the shah dispatched a high-ranking national security official as a emissary to Saudi Arabia to pressure the Saudi government to reverse its policies.
That some month Iran's oil exports declined from 6.1 million barrels a day, the December level to 5 million. Some of this was due to lagging world demand resulting from bloated oil stocks in the consuming countries built up before the December OPEC Meeting. Most of it was due, however, to the availablity of lower-cost Saudi oil.
The Iranian press savaged Yamani and the shah went on French television to decry any increase in Saudi production at Iran's expense as "an act of aggression."
Iraq, whose socialist pro-Soviet revolutionary council government is anathema to the Saudis, also put pressure on the Saudi government, according to State Department officials.
In expanded production figures promised last December, Saudi officials have argued they lack sufficient oil field development and administration to carry out a sharp increase in export shipments.
These claims, too, are being regarded with growing skepticism among experts.
For one thing Aramco, world's single largest producer, has the biggest aggregation of petroleum engineering expertise and muscle anywhere. Aramco, a consortium of four of the largest major international oil companies, has discovered more oil than it has produced each year since the 1930s, when it began operations.
Saudi reserves, set officially by Aramco and the Saudi Ministry of Petroleum and Minerals, are said to be 175 billion barrles. U.S. and Aramco officials privately say the true proven reserve figure in Saudi Arabia is probably beyond 200 million barrels. In the early 1970s Aramco gave the Saudis a plan to increase production to 20 mbd.
There is also an internal debate in progress in the Saudi leadership elite between the hawks and moderates on oil pricing and production issues.
The moderate camp includes Crown Prince Fahd and Foreign Minister Saud as well as Yamani and Minister of the Industry and Electricity Gazi al-Gosabi. In the hawk ranks are MInister of Planning Hisham Nazer and , to some degree, Finance Minister Aba al-Khyl who want the Saudis to restrain production.
Nazer, author of the ambitious $142 billion five-year plan for Saudi economic development, wants a production level of below 4 mbd. Other young technocrats in the government side with him in the argument.
Competition between the contending groups is intense. Internally the debate is between whose who want to conserve - oil -for future generations and those who want to use it to achieve foreign policy, economic and political goals now. Dominating the later group are those most concerned about preserving the role of the conservative theocratic monarchy which rules Saudi Arabia.
Externally, the debate is between the industrialized countries with their unslakable thirst for oil and the producing countries - mainly Iran and Iraq - who want to preserve the vise-like grip of the cartel on oil prices.