By seizing control of Kuwait and its vast reservoir of oil, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein can change the balance of power in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and achieve his aim of making Iraq a regional superpower, independent analysts said yesterday.
He particularly would be in a position to put great pressure on neighboring Saudi Arabia, the country with the world's largest reservoir of proven oil reserves.
Experienced OPEC-watchers agreed that Saddam's objectives are money and power, not disruption of world oil markets for its own sake.
They said that whatever government Saddam permits to emerge in Kuwait is certain to accept his dictates on oil prices, production rates and Persian Gulf security issues.
"The strongest military power in the Middle East now controls the strongest financial power," said Vahan Zanoyan, an OPEC analyst at the Petroleum Finance Co. in the District. "It makes a formidable combination."
Iraq and Kuwait combined have 199 billion barrels of proven crude oil reserves, more than 25 percent of OPEC's total.
Only Saudi Arabia, with 255 billion barrels, has more.
Their combined daily production of about 4.5 million barrels is 19 percent of the OPEC total, and generates annual revenue of $28.8 billion, according to figures compiled by Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
Analysts said Saddam has positioned himself to increase his country's revenue and to erase the $15 billion to $20 billion in debt that is owed to Kuwait, about a fourth of the $70 billion to $80 billion in Iraq's hard and soft loans outstanding.
He also would ensure that weaker countries on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, stop driving oil prices down through overproduction.
If Kuwait's current daily production of about 1.5 million barrels is removed from world oil supplies, either by Saddam's order or by a blockade organized by the United States, the only country with enough spare production capacity to make up the difference is Saudi Arabia, analysts said.
The Saudis might have to choose between economic hardship in the consuming countries, where they have favored stability, and defiance of Saddam Hussein, who has shown his willingness to use his overwhelming military superiority to impose his will.
"Overnight, Iraq has become the most important member of OPEC," said Peter Beutel, an energy analyst at Merrill Lynch.
"OPEC has reemerged as an aggressive force for higher prices... . The days of Kuwait making independent decisions on oil are over."
Just last week Kuwait bowed before an Iraqi show of force and agreed at an OPEC meeting to stop persistent violations of its production quota that Saddam said were driving down oil prices and undermining his country.
Saddam's decision to invade, after he had achieved his stated policy objectives, convinced analysts that he has broader ambitions.
"This is not an oil story, it's a power story," said Lawrence Goldstein, vice president of the Petroleum Industry Research Foundation. "He now controls the Kuwaiti government, with or without a military presence, and the message to the Saudis is clear.
"He's telling the people of the region, 'I am the only one who can stand up to your enemies.' "
The 13 members of OPEC produced about 23.5 million barrels a day in the first half of this year. Under Iraqi pressure, they promised at last week's meeting to limit production to 22.5 million in an attempt to eliminate a worldwide glut and bolster prices.
In the short term, OPEC is not able to dictate the world price by itself because nonmembers are producing about the same amount, according to economists at a major oil company.
In the longer term, however, only the OPEC countries around the Persian Gulf have a deep enough reserve base to control the market.
Despite the immediate surge of oil prices on the spot and futures markets yesterday, the short-term implications of Saddam's bold move are uncertain.
Senior U.S. officials said yesterday that abundant stocks of crude oil in storage should prevent major supply disruptions or price increases so great as to undermine the world economy, although there were fears inflation could be fueled in the United States, leading to a recession.
The ability to dictate the crude oil output of a rival power gives Saddam unprecedented leverage within OPEC.
But he will apparently not be able to seize Kuwait's estimated $100 billion in international assets, which would make a him a virtual one-man superpower, able to buy arms at will and influence economic decisions throughout the industrialized world.
Analysts agreed that it would be physically and politically difficult for the United States to impose a blockade or boycott on Iraqi or Kuwaiti oil.
Kuwait's oil could be blockaded only at the risk of conflict with other Persian Gulf countries, including Iran.
Iraq's oil is exported mostly by pipeline through Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Those countries, as well as consuming nations such as Japan, would have to cooperate to stop the flow, however, analysts said.
Once oil reaches the open sea it is virtually impossible to control because traders can move it around at will in a global market.
"If we don't buy it, the Japanese will buy it and we'll buy some other oil that would have gone to Japan," a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute said.
Saddam has chafed for years over an OPEC system that allowed small, sparsely populated countries such as Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to ignore their production quotas with impunity and help keep oil prices low when his big, ambitious and war-ravaged country was starved for revenue.
Now, analysts agreed, he has the power to enforce the production discipline that members promised at his behest last week to accept.
Iraq and Kuwait produce one-fifth of the total oil produced by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and their oil accounts for an estimated 5 percent of daily U.S. consumption.
Iraq's daily OPEC production quota is 3.14 million barrels, equal to Iran's quota and second only to Saudi Arabia's quota of 5.4 milion barrels.
Kuwait's daily quota is 1.5 million barrels out of an estimated production capacity of 2.2 million to 2.5 million barrels.
The United States buys about 200,000 barrels of oil daily from Kuwait and 500,000-600,000 barrels from Iraq.