After weeks of bargaining, members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries have narrowed their differences on a new oil price and production policy to a dispute over quotas for two or three countries.
"I think they are very close," OPEC spokesman Hamed Zaheri told reporters tonight.
The countries agreed earlier in the week to a new base price for oil of $29, a reduction of $5--or 15 percent--from the present official price. An overall production quota of 17.5 million barrels a day also has been agreed to, but how it should be parceled out remains the problem.
Venezuela, which is struggling to meet payments on its substantial foreign debt, is apparently now the major obstacle, seeking an allotment of 1.8 million barrels a day, 200,000 barrels more than the others wish to give it.
"We are ready to come down, but we have limits for our sacrifice," Venezuelan Oil Minister Humberto Calderon Berti said.
The United Arab Emirates also is reported to be unhappy with its 1.1 million barrel quota and is seeking an increase of at least 100,000 barrels a day.
What had been the most contentious issue--Iran's insistence on a sharp reduction in the allotment for Saudi Arabia--apparently has been resolved. The Saudis will remain at about 4.5 million barrels a day or about their current level.
But the Iranian attitude remains equivocal. In statements to the Iranian press, Oil Minister Mohammed Gharazi has make it clear that Iran is unhappy with the lower base price and the new production figure, which it believes is too high to end the current glut. Iran favored keeping the benchmark price at $34 and cutting production to no more than 14 million barrels.
Although the Iranians are not publicly rejecting the agreement any longer, oil analysts expect that they may well ignore it and sell as much oil as they can for whatever price the market demands. Iran has been discounting its oil by as much as $6 to $10 per barrel for some time.
The OPEC accord represents a determined effort by the members to salvage their declining influence over the world oil trade and to forestall a free-for-all on pricing.
Without such controls, experts estimate that the price would probably settle at between $20 and $25. Much depends on the stance of major non-OPEC producers such as Mexico and Britain. Mexico has said it will abide by the OPEC figure.
Britain, however, is expected to lower its price for North Sea crude to maintain its competitive position with OPEC-member Nigeria.