Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, January 10, 2020

Iran, Oil, and War: The End of the Carter Doctrine?

The "Oil Corridor," where the largest oil resources in the world are located. It was generated by events that took place during the Jurassic period. Those events can't be affected by politics, but they can affect politics.

For a while, the situation with the USA-Iran standoff looked like a scene in an old Western movie:  two drunken gunmen facing each other in the saloon. Fortunately, things calmed down and, for this time, it seems that no war on Iran is in sight, at least in the short term. Perhaps we have been lucky, perhaps some benevolent deity took care of the situation, or, perhaps, there is a logic in these events.

History often moves along the whim of leaders but even mad leaders must take into account reality. And this seems to be what happened in this case. It is possible that we are seeing the end of the "Carter Doctrine" that was stated in 1980. The idea was, and it is still today, that the control of the Middle East is of "vital interest" for the US. That was based on reality as it was in 1980, now reality is different and so there is a reason for the change. But let's see the whole story from the beginning.

It all started long ago, during the Jurassic period, when the slow sedimentation of an ancient sea created a strip of oil fields that goes from the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, in central Eurasia, all the way South to Yemen, crossing Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other states of the region. It is there that most of the world's oil is. More than 20% of all the oil produced today goes through the narrow strait of Hormuz, a critical point of the world's geopolitical map.

So, back to the early 1980s, the US had been the dominant world power for nearly four decades after the victory in World War II. As usual, geography is the mother of empires, and it was because of its vast national oil resources that the US could come to play that role. But oil production in the US had peaked in 1970 and was declining. No oil, no Empire. It was necessary to find new resources and the Middle East region was the richest in the world. A natural target.

The struggle for the Oil of the Middle East had already started in the 1950s, when the prime minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadeq, was overthrown in 1953 by a coup orchestrated by the United States. Then, there was the period in which the US more or less controlled the Iran government using the Shah as a proxy. Then there came the Iranian revolution in 1978-79 and the result was the toppling of the Shah. At that point, in 1980, President Carter stated his "doctrine" -- really nothing more than a description of what had been going on up to then.

You know the troubled story of the Middle East in the years that followed. The disastrous Iraq-Iran war (1980 - 1988). The US going "boots on the ground" first in Kuwait in 1991, then invading Iraq in 2003. At that time (and also later on) it was fashionable to say that "boys can go to Baghdad, but real men want to go to Tehran." Maybe it was a joke, but it could have been deadly serious. It is part of the logic of empires to expand.

Eventually, the invasion of Iran never took place and it looks like it never will. It is, again, the way Empires function. They are like a tide, they ebb and flow. The American Empire flowed into Iraq, now it is ebbing back. Most commenters of the recent events agree that we are seeing the first stages of the US bringing their troops at home. It will take time, but it is written on the walls of the Martyr Monument in Baghdad. 

Apart from the antics of the madmen in power, there is a logic in the US abandoning Iraq. Someone, somewhere in Washington D.C., must have asked the question: "why exactly do we keep troops in Iraq?" Yes, why? The typical answer up to not long ago would have been "to secure the oil." But things have changed. The once very abundant oil resources of the Middle East are unavoidably being depleted. Some producers, Syria and Yemen, are already in terminal decline. Of the others, none has the capability of significantly increasing production and all are expected to go into decline in the coming years (you may have heard of the recent discovery of "53 billion barrels" of oil in Iran. Yes, and they also found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow).

At the same time, the US really found a pot of black gold in shale oil, to the point that during the past few years they managed to increase their oil production to levels higher than the earlier 1970 peak. That shale oil is a good deal in economic terms is questionable, to say the least. But the US elites have become convinced not only that they are truly self-sufficient in terms of energy, but that this self-sufficiency will continue for the foreseeable future, perhaps forever because shale oil is seen as practically infinite. And they see shale oil as a strategic dominance weapon.

At this point, many things start making sense: the oil from the Middle East is not anymore a "vital interest" for the US as it was at the times of Jimmy Carter. So, why pay good money to keep troops there? Those troops are useful only to those spineless Europeans who still depend on oil imports, but why should America pay? Besides, in the current situation, American troops are just sitting ducks waiting for the next rain of missiles coming from those bearded fanatics. So, let's bring the troops back home. Then, we'll be able to assassinate anyone at will in the region without fearing for retaliation. 

And that seems to be how things stand, for now -- unless someone makes some mistake and the fireworks restart. But it is a confirmation that it is geography that creates empires and, also that the geography of oil keeps changing. We'll see more changes in the future, the only sure thing is that, unlike what some people believe, oil is not infinite.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)