THE OIL-FIELD STRIKES in Iran are increasing the threat to the dollar. The connection lies in this country's enormous payments for imported oil. The burden of financing the American trade deficit its helping to depress the value of the dollar abroad. Anything that makes the deficit worse - like a rise in oil prices - increases the pressure on the dollar. The Iranian strikes are currently reducing the world's oil supply by four million barrels a day, and prices here and there are already beginning to inch upward. The case for holding down American oil imports is a good deal more urgent than current policy seems to assume.
For Iran's customers, the most dangerous of the possibilities is continued chaos that keeps oil production to a dribble. But even if the strikes end before a worldwide shortage develops, they may have a permanent effect on oil pricing. This disruption comes at a bad time. OpEC, the exporting countries' cartel, meets next month. It's been clear for some time that a price increase is coming, and the only question is how much. With markets getting tight and middlemen beginning to pick up speculative gains, the OPEC governments will be under great pressure to go higher. The price of a barrel of oil is a political symbol of enormous power, in a part of the world where governments are notoriously insecure. The higher the price, the worse for the dollar.
But the United Staes continues subsidizing imported oil, to insulate consumers from the full impact of its cost. The Carter administration has wanted for some time to get rid of this damaging anomaly. At Bonn last July, President Carter made a public pledge to end the subsidy and get American domestic prices up to world level by the end of 1980. But this administration has an unhappy aptitude for casting its own intentions into doubt. A week ago W. Bowman Cutter, of the president's Office of Management and Budget, hinted to the American Assembly that second thoughts on this commitment were circulating in the White House. The president's campaign against inflation, he suggested, makes it harder to let oil prices rise than it seemed a few months ago. The American Assembly - a gathering of some 60 rather establishmentarian citizens with an interest in this subject - took another and sounder view. Energy costs are likely to keep rising, it said, and serious conservation is impossible unless domestic fuel prices fully reflect those costs. It offered the further useful thought that these rising costs will not be inflationary where they are offset by more efficient use of energy. That's the direction in which national policy needs to be unequivocally pointed.
There's a widespread impression in this country that while there may be oil shortages ahead, they won't arrive until the 1990s. That happy view is almost certainly wrong. Last week President Carter signed the energy bill into law, making a beginning toward holding down imports. But it's only a modest beginning. Meanwhile the strikes and riots in Iran offer further evidence that the United States has bet its economic stability on several very fragile regimes. The dollar crisis is a warning that even at today's prices - and they will undoubtedly rise next month - the United States can't afford its present volumes of imported oil. Taken together, they suggest that this country does not have as much time for the leisurely contemplation and debate of energy policy as it likes to think.