An Iraqi air raid on Iran's primary oil-shipment center was reported yesterday to have caused no damage, but it increased concern that a widening of that war could lead to a partial disruption of the flow of petroleum from the Persian Gulf.
As an indication of the jittery state of the world petroleum market, the price of Arab light crude on the spot market yesterday increased $1 to $32.25 a barrel, back where it was before last weekend's emergency meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries ended in disarray, resulting in forecasts of a continuing world oil surplus.
U.S. officials who monitor international petroleum markets said, however, they did not feel the current situation would become very alarming from a supply point of view as long as the war is confined to Iran and Iraq.
"What is at stake is the roughly 3 million barrels of crude a day being exported by those two countries," an Energy Department analyst said. "The producing countries around the world have at the moment about 7 million barrels a day of unused capacity. And some of them, like Venezuela and Nigeria, seem more than eager to make up any slack."
An interruption of supplies from Iran and Iraq would have particularly little impact on the United States.
No crude oil has been purchased by the United States from Iran since the two countries broke diplomatic relations in 1979, with the exception of one shipload purchased through a third party this year, government sources said. Ironically, that shipment went into the government-owned strategic petroleum reserve.
U.S. oil imports from Iraq for the first six months of this year averaged less than 10,000 barrels per day, the sources added.
"But what would be important," a State Department expert said, "would be any indications of the war widening." Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait--which last year provided Iraq with $25 billion in loans and aid to finance its abortive invasion of Iran--are exporting about 6.5 million barrels of crude a day through the Persian Gulf.
Iran, which has warned all three of the Arab states against aiding Iraq, has underscored its warning several times since 1980 by sending warplanes to attack Kuwait.
At the outbreak of the current fighting, Iran was exporting 2.4 million barrels of oil a day, U.S. analysts said. Between 1.5 million and 2 million of this pass through the primary shipment center, Kharg Island. If Iraqi planes, which have attempted to raid Kharg Island on several occasions over the past two years, succeeded in actually putting the facilities there out of operation, it would deal a crippling blow to Iran's export capability.
Industry sources noted, however, that Kharg Island is a large facility, handling over 6 million barrels a day during the 1970s. They said tanker captains waiting to take on oil at the time of Wednesday's air raid reported that the bombs fell harmlessly, and U.S. experts expressed doubt that Iraq is capable of significantly damaging the facility.
Iraq currently is able to export only about 650,000 barrels a day, all of it through a pipeline that runs to Turkey's Mediterranean port of Dortyol. An Iraqi pipeline that runs through Syria was cut off several months ago, and Iraq's loading platforms in the Persian Gulf were shelled and put out of action more than a year ago.
All of Iraq's oil production at the moment comes from the Kirkuk fields in the north, U.S. experts said. The Basra fields, which are more immediately threatened by the invading Iranian forces, are undamaged but have not been producing significant amounts for some time, the experts said.