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.


  1. As said before oil is a falling commodity,surpassed by other energy sources and overestimated both in a unglobalized world or in a depopulating one: oil is today used for chemical production or transport, BRI of China is electric for the train system and naval transport is linked to bulk moment.
    Today railroad production is fast and cheap (by government standard) and a lot less intensive in maintenance compared to naval, can be all electric with a lot of different sources and quite competitive in energy/cargo. Organized production can be the key to 5 years delivery of quite a long (1000+Km) of leveled, reinforced and serviced railroads, China demonstrated it in his hi speed trains explosion.
    Oil gluttony is also China driven today so we can look for a fighting empire looking for a denial strategy, going to jugular of the enemy creating disruption in viability..... the "art of war" is going creating a strong focus in NG and renewable resources in China mainland so we are looking to a late intervention i suppose just for show.
    Quire interesting is the assumption of finite resource....coal depletion in UK changed little about empire economy because the paradigm shifted to oil, today oil depletion is less impacting to USA empire because paradigm shift to natural gas and tomorrow is open to a lot of paradigm shifts as multi sources approach is on the horizon.
    Financial and power is wildly shifting as paradigms are becoming obsolete, market economy driven by state overlooking is the choice of growing players and globalization is showing his limits with liberist and mercantilism internal contradictions showing up. Seems also that a new kind of kingdom approach is coming in the same fashion, long term planning ask for it as is necessary for big infrastructural interventions, again here China and Russia are historically massive empires with experience in the field and growing stars of the Heartland.

    1. Very puzzling and confusing comment utilizing strange sentence and paragraph structure. I assume it is a poor google translation?

    2. Sorry, thinking in Italian and writing in English....
      Mind construct structures in different ways, need more training i admit.

    3. Don't worry, Athanasius. It happens to me all the time!!!

    4. BTW, try "Grammarly" it helps a lot in improving one's Ingliss....

  2. >>The US going "boots on the ground" first in Kuwait in 1998

    In realtà nel '91, prof.

  3. Coal to oil to natural gas, eh? The question now is does it take more energy to extract a million BTU of NG than it did last month or last year or 10 years ago?

      NG is actually a good TRANSITION resource, tech innovation with higher efficiencies, stable or diminishing population, renewable resources and a global network of energy transfer are shaping the future. We have also a possible aspect linked to the new fast reactors that burn uranium and thorium to fast decaying ashes, small modular reactors seems economically viable and a smart choice for energy intensive industries. Today a lot of issues posed are more financial based, tech base is proved and ready.
      I also suggest to look at algae as a quite interesting solution, fast growing and adapted to salty water can be an element of carbon-energy capture and are quite more manageable than solid products, Arthrospira Platensis is almost a perfect food (too rich in proteins really)great producer of oil and a nitrogen fixer, do also some CO2 fixing as carbonate producer. World have quite a lot of salty water and sunny places as cheap real estate.
      Just a suggestive option a transition utilizing NG as a bridge.

    2. Engineers perhaps need to learn that proven technology is nothing without a viable financial structure.

    3. I just posted on my starting blog about the algae element, Austrian are using it and in Italy too is a topic for national energy giant ENI. Fast reactors are in use in Russia (sodium cooled) and was used as nuclear submarine energy sources, Small modular reactors are licensing and the pipeline war is a real matter.
      Financial structure is a burden based on perceived opportunity, EROI is probably a more interesting matter: financially is appealing a scarce but costly energy source for an investor, more profit, big EROI abundant one is unappealing if capital intensiveness and easy, less profit. Viability of a financial structure is also dependent on law and subsides, this is why i consider it a marginal element in this kind of analysis.

  4. "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".

    And change is constant.

    Industrial Civilization was a mistake - and it is just a brief transient pulse - as noted by Dr. Richard Duncan -

    We continue to argue about the needles in the Haystack - which will bring abut Worldwide Catastrophe - when instead we should be discussing implementing Technocracy and ending the benefits which Governments provide to Breeders. No more incentives to breed - no more subsidy's provided to breeders.

    Let us deal with reality - on a finite Planet.

  5. US elites may think that shale is practically infinite, but what happens in two or three years when this likely proves untrue? We appear to be at or near Peak Shale now. Shale wells decline rapidly so the elites will be disabused of their current optimism about shale soon. What then?

    Antoinetta III

  6. Allegedly not one shale production company has made a net profit from extracting shale oil in the U.S, ever. Yes,shale oil production has increased over the last 10 plus years in the U.S, but this is due to drilling in the most desirable fields and maximizing production by drilling multiple wells in these fields. Eventually this "House of Cards" will come tumbling to the ground! At this point, its possible the "Carter Doctrine" will be resurrected by U.S. politicians in an effort to protect and obtain the remaining oil in the Middle East and also expanded to other areas of the globe where potential oil reserves are. The South China sea area is just one example!

    1. The economic aspect is marginal at the moment, the need is to abbandon the "Carter Doctrine", USA are looking to a field for energy and employment as transitioning from empire to "power player" of geopolitical field. Slowing globalization and a possible reversal are devasting effect on oil, less cargo to move, automation is burning employment and revenues from industry are in freefall.
      Economy is moving to the Marx point, no spare money no sales, empire need a strong internal economy to pay for war and, like Roman Empire, is preparing to split for survive. We will see again a Western Roman Empire and a Easten Roman Empire, Eurasia and American Continents is my guess.

  7. Don't forget that the United States CENTRAL command is precisely the gulf region (and Iran,central Asia including Pakistan) :

    Even with minimal net oil imports today, controling the oil market (and routes) remain of central importance for the US (plus the friendship with KSA)



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)