In early 1978, many analysts predicted an imminent oil glut; no allowance was made for an Iranian revolution that within a year would result in an oil shortfall and long gas lines. We have learned little from that experience. Because we cannot quantify political risks, we ignore them, still basing our oil plans solely on technical and economic speculations. Yet there is a high probability that within the next two years political or military events will interrupt - if not permanently curtail - the flow of oil from major production centers in the Middle East.
During the past year, at least five developments have intensified the threat to oil supplies:
The Arab nations have bitterly split over the Camp David agreements.
The Iranian revolution has jeopardized Iran's oil flow, while Khomeini's obsessive evangelical drive to encourage Shite Moslems wherever they may be has created tension and excitement throughout Islam.
The PLO nas become a pervasive force for agitation and disruption in Middle Eastern countries.
The Soviets have gained beachheads in the Horn of Africa, South Yemen and Afghanistan.
According to CIA estimates, the Soviet Union may in three years become an oil-deficit country and seek to obtain Middle Eastern oil for its own uses.
These five developments - individually or in combination - could critically affect the oil flow on which our prosperity depends.
Iran: The continued export of oil even at the currently reduced level of 3.4 million barrels a day may well be interrupted by the power struggle now in progress. Though the Khomeini regime will almost certainly be displaced, no one knows what will follow or what disruption may result. The left, though momentarily weakened by internal division and Islamic fervor, may still gain strength as the wheel turns. Meanwhile, Iran's oil exports could be sabotaged by the 500,000 Sunni Moslem Arabs who furnish 20 percent of the oil-field workers. Armed and encouraged by their Arab friends in Iraq, they have already twice cut pipelines in their demand for an autonomous Arab state (Khuzistan), which would incorporate most of Iran's oil fields.
Iraq: Continued oil production of 3.5 million barrels a day cannot be counted on. For the first time in years, Iraq faces political instability, just when its relations with Iran next door are rapidly deteriorating. While Iraq is inciting the Arabs in Iran, Khomeini's regime is encouraging insurrection among the Shiite Moslems in Iraq, who constitute 52 percent of Iraq's population but have a little role in the Iraqi government. Meanwhile, President Saddam Hussein faces a resumption of Kurdish revolt, which in the past has tied down half the Iraqi army in protracted fighting.
Saudi Arabia: Contrary to overoptimistic projections, the Saudis are not likely to increase production much above the current temporary level of 9 1/2 million barrels a day nor can we even count on a minimum level of 8 1/2 million barrels. Though committed to moderation, Saudi Arabia, with only 5 million people, cannot resist the political dynamics of the area. If the Begin government continues its creeping annexation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip through its settlement stratagem and there is no breakthrough toward a Palestinian agreement, production will be drastically reduced. The more radical Arab states will inevitably force the Saudis to use their oil production as a political weapon, just as they have already forced them to cut their subsidy to Egypt. Though the Saudis are probably too subtle to explain a production curtailment in such bald terms, the effect will be the same no matter what technical justification is given.
Kuwait, Bahrein and the Gulf Emirates and Sultanates: These little nations with weak governments, which together produce 4.8 million barrels a day, contain large percentages of Shiites (Bahrein 40 percent, Kuwait 20 percent) as well as many thousand Palestinians. The collapse of the Iranian monarchy - the largest in the area - has aroused and excited a volatile, divided and suggestible population. Though there seems little immediate danger of a revival of the Dhofar insurrection in Oman, the increasing Soviet influence in South Yemen adds to the general anxiety over the Gulf.
The Gulf: Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani's recent comments that the terrorist sinking of a supertanker in the Straits of Hormuz might block access to the Gulf was only a slight exaggeration. Although the main channel is so deep that the sinking of a single supertanker would not physically block its use, the devastating effect on insurance rates and the reluctance of ships' captains to undertake the passage could effectively interrupt tanker movements for a protracted period.
Libya: The continued export of 2 million barrels a day (40 percent to the United States) depends on the whims and moods of an erratic Moammar Qaddafi. He could easily become enbroiled in a war with Egypt (he has given President Anwar Sadat ample provacation) or he might trade oil for arms with the Soviets.
These are by no means all the scenarios for dangers in the Middle East today. The greatest contributing source of tension and disruption is the festering Palestinian issue. So long as the West Bank and the Gaza Strip remain under Israeli occupation, our Middle East oil supplies will be increasingly jeopardized - and some morning we may awake to find hamsters, not tigers, in our tanks.