THE BLAZING quarrel in OPEC, and the collapse of its emergency meeting in Geneva, may bring a drop in oil prices--but don't count on it. The real meaning of this breakdown is that the political tensions within OPEC are moving erratically toward a climax that remains totally unpredictable. An exceedingly dangerous game is being played out, and neither the United States nor any other oil-importing country is going to have much influence on the outcome.
At the center of it is the fierce rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. More broadly, it is the radicals, led by Iran and Libya, versus the deeply conservative Arabs of the Persian Gulf. The radicals are getting a measure of reluctant support from a third group within OPEC--countries like Nigeria and Venezuela that have embarked on expensive development programs and, in a shrinking oil market, are desperate for revenues to meet their commitments.
In 1981, the Saudis imposed their will and their pricing policy on the rest of OPEC in a way that won them very few friends. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, several producers had pushed their prices up to $40 a barrel or more--Libya, Algeria and Nigeria, the most radical and the most hard-pressed. The Saudis believed that those prices were too high and threatened to wreck the market. They implacably forced the high-flyers down by deliberately overproducing from their vast reserves. In September 1981, they pressed OPEC to an involuntary compromise based on the present price of $34 for a barrel of Saudi light crude. But the Saudis, like most other people, had seriously underestimated the scale of the worldwide recession that was then getting under way. Up to that time, each member country had been able to sell as much oil as it wished. But by early last year, it was clear that either OPEC would have to pro-rate production or prices would fall. Last March, OPEC tried to impose production quotas, but they have been increasingly ignored as some member countries began discounting their oil.
The present explosion in OPEC was forced by Iran. Despite its war with Iraq, and the Iraqi attempts to bomb Iranian oil ports, Iran has succeeded in nearly tripling its production during the past year. In a sagging market, which country is going to cut back to accommodate the Iranian increases? If nobody cuts, prices will drop. That would threaten the governments of many of the OPEC countries, but particularly the Saudi regime, which promised, when it imposed that compromise price 16 months ago, to enforce it. Throughout the Third World, the price of oil has taken on a powerful political meaning as the symbol of a great triumph over the rich industrial countries.
Perhaps prices will fall and perhaps they won't. But the evidence of political strain and instability is rapidly accumulating in the Persian Gulf region, on which the world's economy still crucially depends. The next move is up to the Saudis