NOW THE IRANIANS say publicly that they might resell that shipment of heating oil from the American refinery. And after the Carter administration called it a humanitarian gesture to prevent suffering. Isn't that shocking?
Before you're shocked, you might pause to reflect that the need to buy this oil from a foreign refinery is a matter of deep embarrassment to a weak and threatened government in Iran. The revolutionary government has a flood of crude oil, but it hasn't been able to get enough refining capacity back into operation to meet the country's minimum needs. It quietly arranged to buy some refined fuel abroad. Then the American export-licensing procedure made the sale public, which in turn set off a great quacking and flapping among some of the New England congressmen.
Winters are cold in Iran. Like American consumers, Iranians are anxious about fuel supplies for the coming months -- and with far better reason. Just as the Carter administration is trying to persuade the public here that there will be no shortage, and no need to hoard, so the government in Iran is desperately trying to deliver the same message to its own people. The administration's competence is something of a political issue currently in this country. It is always an issue in a developing country like Iran, and dependence on foreign technology and industry -- in this case, an American refinery -- is always a matter of the most extreme sensitivity.
The Iranian official who spoke of reselling the oil was Hassan Nazih, head of the national oil company. What he actually said was that, if the new Isfahan refinery gets into production quickly, Iran won't need the oil that it bought from the American refinery. Mr. Mazih was addressing, among other things, national pride. He was reminding his audience that Iran has resources of its own, and is expanding its own refining capacity. But in reality it is unlikely that the Isfahan refinery will be completed in time to produce any fuel for Iranian stoves and heaters this winter.
The White House has contributed generously to the confusion by saying that it was 1.5 million barrels of heating oil and kerosene, sold at normal market prices. On the contrary, it was 2 million barrels, sold at substantially less than market prices. Why would the refiner, Amerada Hess, sell low? It's an interesting question. Perhaps part of the answer is that Amerada Hess's gigantic refinery in the Virgin Islands is heavily dependent on Iranian oil, and the company has every reason to do the Iranians a favor.
American consumers in general, also heavily dependent on Iranian oil, have an equally strong interest in better relations with Iran. There is a shortsighted movement by some of the New Englanders in Congress to embargo any exports of oil from this country. If Americans embargo oil exports to the Middle East, we will invite similar embargoes of Middle Eastern oil to the United States. That doesn't seem very smart.