It wasn't all about oil. But if it hadn't been for the oil, there probably wouldn't
have been a war.
I speak not of the current conflict in Iraq, but of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s,
which led to each subsequent conflict, including the big one looming on the horizon.
Most of the oil in both Iraq and Iran comes from either side of the Shatt al Arab, a
tidal river formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates, which flows 120
miles southeast into the Persian Gulf, and which forms much of the border between
Iraq and Iran.
About two thirds of Iraq's oil comes from the fields north of Basra. About 90
percent of Iran's oil comes from the province of Khuzestan, on its side of the
Shatt al Arab.
The Iran-Iraq war began in September, 1980, when Saddam Hussein tried to seize
Khuzestan, where a large majority of the people are ethnically Arab. The war, which
lasted until July, 1988, swiftly degenerated into a bloody stalemate in which
upwards of a million people (mostly Iranians) were killed or wounded.
More important to Saddam Hussein who has a pretty cavalier attitude about other
peoples' lives the war cost tens of billions of dollars. It was primarily money
that caused Saddam to invade Kuwait in August, 1990. Iraq and Kuwait share the
Rumaila oil field, which Saddam wanted all to himself. And if Saddam took over
Kuwait, he wouldn't have to repay the $14 billion the Kuwaitis loaned him to help
finance his war with Iran.
American intervention frustrated Saddam's ambitions, and set the stage for the
continuation of the Gulf War in March, 2003.
So why the history lesson? On Christmas day, the National Academy of Sciences
issued a report which indicates Iranian oil production is about to plunge.
Iran currently earns about $50 billion a year in oil exports. Oil profits account
for about 65 percent of Iranian government revenues.
But Iranian oil exports could decline by half within five years, and virtually
disappear within ten, said Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Johns Hopkins
University in Baltimore.
The effect on Iran would be catastrophic. Thanks to mismanagement by the mullahs,
and corruption on a scale so vast as to make even an Iraqi blush, Iran's economy is
already a basket case. According to the CIA World Factbook, more than 40 percent of
Iran's people live in poverty; the unemployment rate is 11 percent (more than double
that for people under 30), and the rate of inflation tops 13 percent. Oil exports
are just about Iran's only source of foreign exchange.
Impending fiscal catastrophe could make the Iranians more tractable, Prof. Stern
thinks. If the U.S. can "hold its breath" for a few years, it might find Iran to be
a much more conciliatory country, he told Barry Schweid, the AP's diplomatic writer,
in an interview.
But one of the big reasons why oil production in Iran is declining does not suggest
a happy outcome. Iran is spending so much on its nuclear program that next to
nothing is being invested in modernizing oil production. Though the West has made
it clear it will assist in developing nuclear energy if Iran will forswear its
nuclear weapons programs, Iran would rather have the nukes than the carrots the West
So rather than come begging with his hat in his hand, it's more likely Iranian
president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will seek a Saddamite solution.
When Saddam Hussein invaded Khuzestan in 1980, he didn't say he was doing it for the
oil. He was asserting Iraq's historic territorial claims to the region, and acting
to protect the Arabs in the province from Persian oppression. Or so he said.
And if Iran should take aggressive action against its oil rich neighbors, it will,
ostensibly, be to protect Shia minorities from oppression by Sunni overlords. Or so
Mr. Ahmadinejad will say.
In all the Gulf countries, there are Shia Muslim minorities who perform the kind of
scut work blacks used to do in the segregated South of half a century ago. In
Kuwait, Shias account for 25 percent of the population. In Saudi Arabia, Shias are
just 15 percent but a majority in the coastal province where most of Saudi
Arabia's oil reserves are located.
Religion and national pride fuel Iran's aggressive foreign policy. Islamic
extremists think Islam should rule the world, and that their particular sect should
dominate Islam. Persians think Arabs are inferior, and ought to pay them proper
But it is impending economic catastrophe that could trigger regional war. If you
think Allah is on your side, and that your race is inherently superior, you can
afford to wait. But if you think economic doom is just around the corner, maybe you