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The Looming Regional Mideast War

By Jack Kelly

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 is offering.

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 respect.

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 can't.


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