U.S. oil specialists said yesterday that it was simply too early to determine how much damage has been inflicted upon the oil-exporting capabiliity of either Iran or Iraq in the week of fighting.
Their initial cautious assessment is that there has probably been less damage than it might seem from war communiques and press reports of blazing, all-day fires at the two countries' refineries, ports, and other oil installations.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Prince Saud Faisal, took a similar view in an interview with The Washington Post Friday, saying he thought it would not be difficult to get the two countries' production back to near prewar levels even if their refineries were seriously damaged.
While the bombing has created spectacular fires at the oil installations of both countries, there has been no confirmation that the vital parts of any refinery, oil pipeline or terminal have been destroyed.
"All I've seen on fire is oil tanks. On the Iranian side large tanks; on the Iraqi side small ones," said Ray Young of the Washington-based American Petroleum Institute. "There is no evidence major processing units have been hit."
U.S. officials were taking a similar line, saying it was "just not clear" that even the numerous Iraqi raids on the huge Iranian refinery at Abadan or on Kharg Island, where Iran's main oil terminal is located, had hit "vital equipment."
At Kharg, 120 miles southeast of the Shatt-al-Arab in the Persian Gulf, several storage tanks and one jetty have been set afire and destroyed, and that is about all that is known, these officials said.
What oil specialists want to know in order to make a determination of the damage is whether such equipment as high-pressure vessels in the Abadan refinery have been destroyed or the "front end of the refinery," where the initial distillation of crude oil takes place, has been hit.
Many key parts of a refinery are finely machined pieces of equipment, and some are even made to specification. The so-called "lead time" to remake such parts is two to three years in some cases, Young said.
Other vital parts in a refinery include the unit responsible for taking the sulphur out of the oil. On pipelines, it is the pumping and compressor stations that are crucial.
On the other hand, inflicting damage to oil fields by bombing them is not taken by oil experts as a very serious threat. That would require a direct hit on a well with a bomb, which is considered an unlikely event. More serious is the possibility of sabotaging an oil field by causing a blowout at the wellhead. As far as is known, this has not yet happened in either of the two warring countries.
Iraq has already vowed to do its best to get the interrupted shipment of its slightly more than 3 million barrels of oil daily going again as quickly as possible. Iran, with only 500,000 to 800,000 barrels of oil exports daily, is not regarded as a major loss for the world market, even with the loss of the Abadan refinery.
If it turns out that no major damage has been inflicted on the vital parts of their refineries, pipelines and loading facilities, then there is no purely technical reason Iran and Iraq could not resume their production and exports fairly soon after the war ends.
But until the smoke clears and the facilities are inspected, no U.S. specialist is willing to hazard a guess as to exactly how serious the situation really is or how long it may be before either country is fully back in the oil-exporting business.