The convulsive events in Iran threaten the world economy with another severe oil squeeze and another round of petroleum price increases, not by Iran but Saudi Arabia, 200 miles across the Persian Gulf.
What happens in Iran and how the Arab and Islamic states react to it could persuade the Saudis to change their longstanding policy of price moderation and high production.
Despite the expressed optimism of Tresury Secretary G. William Miller, now visiting the conservative kingdom, State Department and other administration analysts fear that the Iran crisis could tilt Saudi oil policy toward lower exports.
A closed-door debate has raged for years within the kingdom's Council of Ministers over these questions: Should Saudi Arabia cooperate with the western industrial nations, especially the United States, to meet their energy needs? Or should it keep more of its crude oil in the ground, saving it for the future, when prices are certain to be higher?
The pro-United States side of the debate has nearly always prevailed since the Arab oil embargo five years ago. Riyadh has raised its oil production. to meet growing world demand and has urged other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to moderate their price increases.
But many of the recent events in Iran are expected to undercut the pro-American side and reinforce the conservationist faction.
Current Saudi oil policy, drafted by Crown Prince Fahd and officially supported by the entire Saudi government, faces powerful internal opposition from the conservationist faction. That faction includes Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, other members of the royal family, and a clique of western-educated technocrats -- Minister of Planning Hisham Nazier, Finance Minister Muhammad Aba Khail and Minister of Industry and Electricity Ghazi al Quasaybi.
The implications for the West are enormous.If Saudi Arabia decides to cut back production substantially, it will mean gas lines, persistant oil shortages and rising prices, regardless of what Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini does in Iran.
Administration analysts express private fears that the Saudis, buffeted by political insecurities in the Arab and Islamic world, will move in that direction if only to show that the Saudi royal family respects Moslem sensitivities more than it does American energy needs.
Last month, before the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani was touring Washington offices with ominous warnings. If new shortages develop, Yamani said gravely, "There is little we can do for you."
Analysts say it is certain that the radical turns in Mideast politics, from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's Jerusalem visit two years ago to the occupation of the Grand Mosque in Mecca last week by extremist Moslems, have strenghened the conservationist's case.
Last week, on the eve of Secretary Miller's visit, administration officials said they were hopeful that the Saudis would continue exporting 9.5 million barrels of oil a day through the first quarter of 1980. The United States imports about $1.4 million barrels of Saudi oil a day.
Miller and other administration officials, such as Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, remain cautiously optimistic that the Saudi's oil policy will not change.
Their hope, analysts say, is that the Saudis will not lower production or press for sharply higher oil prices at OPEC's December meeting in Caracas, out of concern for continued U.S. assurances of their security. Continued high production also would ensure that the Saudis share in the economic, technological and politicial benefits from the special relationship that has tied Washington to the desert kingdom for decades.
Officials say that Saudi foreign policy, traditionally conservative works against changes in production policy while the Mideast is gripped in turmoil.
However, one State Department official said in private that a reversal in Saudi policy could not be ruled out. "It's not improbable," the official said. Further, the official said that "there is no question that the Saudis could lower their production to 8, 7, 6 or even 5 million barrels a day."
Some administration officials said they cannot evaluate the likelihood of a severe cut in production, beyond saying that it is possible.
Saudi Arabia is the world's leading exporter and America's largest oil supplier, and has produced since July a million barrelsf above Riyadh's self-imposed 8.5 million-barrel-a-day ceiling.
Today, Saudi output almost equals the total oil production of all the other Persian Gulf producers -- Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
More importantly, Saudi Arabia's "swing" oil producation has slowed the rise in the world oil prices, which have gone up nearly 70 percent since January.
In the past the conservationist case centered on two issues: that is made little sense to earn billions of petrodollars that have been eroded by inflation and the vagaries of currency devaluations and that the kingdom should not be expected to deplete its finite oil reserves for the West at the expense of future Saudi generations.
Analysts say that President Carter's response to Khomeini has escalated the Saudi debate on the level of oil production.
White House warnings of the potential for U.S. millitary intervention in Iran fuel some Saudi fears that American troops might one day take over the prolific Saudi oil fields near Dhahran, along the Persian Gulf. Carter's order last week to freeze Iranian assets in U.S. banks also touched off a wave of Saudi concern that the same thing might happen to the estimated $40 billion the kingdom has invested in the United States, much of it in government securities.
And the occupation of Mecca's Grand Mosque by ultra conservative Moslems who reportedly demanded a slowdown in Saudi Arabia's multibillion-dollar modernization program also bolstered conservationist arguments.
By lowering production, analysts suggest, the Saudi government would be able to create a distance between its conservative Saudi monarchy and the United States, and at the same time shield itself from Arab and Moslem critics.
Lower production would send a signal to Washington and the world community that the Saudis are tiring of their "little brother" role.
Lower production also would ease differencies in OPEC and criticism within the kingdom that, by holding down prices, the Saudis only enrich the four American oil companies that make up the Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) -- Exxon, Mobil, Standard Oil of Calif. and Texaco.
Today, for example, the Saudis continue to sell their prized premium light crude oil to Aramco at $18 a barrel, while most other OPEC countries and many American domestic producers receive $23 to more than $30 a barrel for their oil.
Critics charge that the discount price is costing the Saudi treasury from $45 million to more than $70 million a day.
It is difficult to forecast how Saudi Arabia will resolve the internal conflict over the political of oil and relations with the West, analysts say.
The Saudi regime's leadership style is collegial, often slow to act and based on deliberate and exhaustive consensus.