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Is Saudi Arabia ready to play hardball with Iran?

Is Saudi Arabia ready to play hardball with Iran?

By John Hannah

Are the Saudis prepared to constrain oil prices to weaken Iran? It’s an intriguing possibility that, if implemented, could have major implications for U.S.-led efforts to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

In no small part because of a weakening dollar, oil prices have risen for most of the past year from a low of close to $30 per barrel to around $82 per barrel last week. But since then, prices have been slowly sliding back, dipping below $77 yesterday. Most media attributed Thursday’s decline to a report that U.S. oil inventories had increased higher than expected, and that U.S. consumers continued to reduce energy use in a still sluggish economy. No doubt true. But other factors have been at play as well.

Specifically, the near-record stockpiles of oil that currently exist not only in the United States, but across the developed world, have been made possible by the fact that OPEC has been increasing output at the fastest pace in two years. Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that the cartel has boosted production more than a million barrels a day since March — despite the worst global recession since World War II. OPEC’s largest producer, the Saudis, have helped lead the way, increasing exports four out of the past six months. Saudi output has increased almost 300,000 barrels per day since earlier this year. Overall OPEC production reached its highest level in 10 months in October.

The Saudis have said that $75 per barrel is an appropriate target price. This week, a Saudi government advisor told the press that, at over $80 per barrel, prices had reached “the high end of our range” and any further rise could prompt the Kingdom to further tap its unused capacity — which currently stands at approximately 4 million barrels a day.

The Saudis have publicly explained their effort to moderate prices as a function of their desire to protect a fragile global economy. But it’s hard not to notice that the Saudi strategy also has the side benefit of pinching Iran. Specifically, while the Saudis in 2009 require an average oil price of about $51 a barrel to cover their budget, Iran needs an average price in excess of $90. If the price holds steady at the Saudi-designated range of $70-$80 for the rest of this year, the Saudi treasury could come in with a slight surplus. The Iranians, by contrast, have reportedly been forced to consider phasing out food and energy subsidies in an attempt to battle their looming fiscal problems.

Of course, reducing subsidies on essential commodities is almost always political dynamite — especially in a place like Iran, where the economy is already in a shambles, and where millions of Iranians have taken to the streets since the fraudulent June 12 elections to make known their hatred of the current regime. The fact is that the Islamic Republic is desperate for increased cash flow that could be used to buy off as many of its disaffected citizens as possible and cover up its gross economic mismanagement. Saudi determination to limit any price spike — for whatever reason — is clearly an impediment.

With daily exports in the range of 2.5 million barrels per day, Iran stands to lose about $900 million annually from every one dollar drop in the price of oil. With excess capacity of 4 million barrels per day, the Saudis are clearly in position to go much farther than they have to date in squeezing Iran if they so choose. An aggressive Saudi effort to depress oil prices well below the current $75 target could prove extremely harmful to Iran’s already reeling economy and tumultuous political situation. Almost certainly, such an effort could inflict as much pain on the Iranian regime as many of the sanctions currently being discussed by the United States and its international partners — and, given Russian and Chinese reluctance to get tough with Iran, would almost certainly be quicker and easier to implement.

Would the Saudis really be prepared to play hardball with Iran in this way? In the past, the answer has usually been no. Taking big risks to offend more powerful neighbors has generally not been the Saudi way. A transparent effort to inflict major damage on the Iranian economy would certainly incur the Islamic Republic’s wrath. The Saudis no doubt recall that a similar charge about depressing oil prices led Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990. Even if an Iranian military attack is not likely in the cards, the Saudis have good reason to fear the kind of mischief Iran could cause within the Kingdom — especially among the large, potentially restive Shiite population that is concentrated in its oil-rich Eastern Province.

That said, there’s no doubt that Saudi King Abdullah views Iran — and the near-term prospect of its acquiring nuclear weapons — as nothing short of an existential threat to the House of Saud and its preeminent position in the Islamic world. There’s at least some chance that he may be prepared to consider doing things now that in the past would have been unthinkable in order to prevent his worst nightmare from coming to pass — especially if he’s provided sufficient support, encouragement and guarantees from the United States and our major European allies.

In this regard, the current crisis in Yemen, in which Saudi forces have been drawn into combat on their southern border against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, has only upped the ante. As with almost everything Iran does, Abdullah no doubt perceives the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Yemen as the latest maneuver in a grand strategy whose ultimate target is the Kingdom itself and control of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

The big question is how far the Saudis are willing to go in drawing on their oil power to really do something about it — something, that is, that actually stands a chance of either 1) compelling the Iranian regime to fundamentally re-calculate its nuclear ambitions, or 2) speeding the regime’s unraveling at the hands of its already seething population. Of course, encouraging the Saudis to use oil as a political weapon is not without its downside risks; after all, the United States was on the receiving end of just such a Saudi gambit during the oil embargo that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. But given the enormity of the stakes now at play vis a vis Iran — both for the Kingdom and for the United States — it’s clearly an option that at least deserves serious consideration. One hopes that it’s already the subject of intense consultations between Washington and Riyadh, preferably at the highest levels. Should the United States conclude that the potential benefits outweigh the risks, it will need to muster every instrument at its disposal to steel the Saudi king to take unprecedented measures to face down Iran’s unprecedented challenge.               

Scott Nelson/KAUST via Getty Images