Giancarlo Elia Valori
Protests against the petrol price rise and rationing in Iran began on November 15 in Ahvaz, when the Iranian government announced the fuel price increase up to 300%.
They quickly spread to major Iranian cities.
Before the enactment of this new rule, car owners could buy up to 250 litres of petrol per month, at the subsidized price of 15,000 rial per liter, for the first sixty ones, and then at the price of 30,000 rial per litre for the additional ones.
It should be noted that currently the rial is worth 0.000027 euros approximately.
The riots – strangely similar to those that gave rise to the phenomenon of the gilets jaunes in France – have erupted because the rule just approved grants a subsidized price of 15,000 rialsper litre only for the first 60 litres, but obliges to pay the new price of 30,000 rials per litre after this limit.
This is unsustainable for ordinary Iranian citizens, who are forced to use cars more frequently than anyone living in Western countries’ suburbs.
Hence a 300% price rise, albeit hidden, considering that all Iranians who own a car need much more than 60 litres per month.
The riots, which also caused some victims, initially broke out in Sirjan, but later the protests spread to Mashhad, the second largest city in Iran, and to Qods, a suburb of the capital city. They were massive and the reaction of the police, of the Armed Forces and the Basiji was not long in coming.
For Iranian consumers the issue of oil rationing is part of the strategic triangulation between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States for the geopolitical management of this commodity.
In September 2019, in fact, there were attacks with drones, probably launched from Iraq or, also, from Yemen – in the hands of the Houthi rebels, linked to Iran – which hit some Saudi wells.
There was unanimous condemnation of the attacks in the West, but there is another issue to consider. Currently, in the Arab and Islamic world, additional extraction areas are conquered. All OPEC countries do so, thus destabilizing oil producing countries and joining them to their extraction and price system.
Indeed, the right to plunder is established in the Qur’an. “The Spoils of War” is the title of the Surah 8 of Medina’s Qur’an, which establishes (verse 8) that “the decision concerning the spoils of war is for Allah and His Messenger”.
The Prophet, however, was entitled to a fifth (khums) of any war booty, at least since the battle of Badr (642 A.D., the Second Year of the Hijra).
As said in verse 8:41, however, the Prophet Muhammad was entitled to one fifth of all public finances of the Islamic tribe, while all the rest was to be equally distributed among the members of the war expedition.
This is one of the foundations of the specific “Arab socialism”.
The Prophet was also granted a further part of the booty, as a member of the war expedition.
We are talking about cultures in which war is inherent in political action and in the economy – unlike what happens in the West, which has removed the military clash from its horizon, at its own risk. We are not referring here only to jihad.
In the case of spoils resulting from an agreement and not from a victory on the ground, the Prophet claimed for himself the entire booty, and the traditional comments on Surah 8 agree on stating that “all that the earth contains has been attributed by Allah to his faction”.
Hence the productive areas left alone by the West or subject to possible ethnic, religious or political destabilization are Al Anfal, namely booty, and the Muslims share it among themselves, according to the complex Qur’anic rules concerning war and the sharing of its spoils, many of which are found in the Caliphate tradition common to both Shiites and Sunnis.
Nevertheless, the attacks launched on the Saudi wells last September 14, 2019 – with drones, because the war is to be waged with the updated techniques and technology that Allah has provided – caused the temporary suspension from the market of as many as 5.7 million oil barrels a day, about half of the Saudi standard production.
From the viewpoint of the old liberal theory of competition, however, Saudi Arabia has been greatly favoured by the sanctions which, since the beginning of the Shiite revolution in 1979, have thrown Iranian oil production into crisis.
A severe distortion of the oil market that Iran tries to oppose with direct but, above all, indirect war methods – to which Saudi Arabia responds blow by blow.
In 1995, the year in which US President Carter strengthened the sanction regime, which had begun in 1979, after the revolutionary students’ assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the system of sanctions implied, inter alia, the prohibition to support the Import-Export Bank for transactions with Iran; the refusal to grant any commercial license to companies that broke any trade restriction rules vis-à-vis Iran; the ban on any loan exceeding 10 million US dollars during the year, obviously by U.S. financial institutions; the prohibition of becoming an agent for bank or debt securities issued by the U.S. government in Iran; finally a ban on all the specific goods or services included in the special list of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
In 1997, President Clinton relaxed the sanctions against Iran as a result of the election of Khatami as President of Iran, who was considered a “reformist” by the naive Western press and, above all, a political opponent of Ahmadinedjad, the future Iranian President.
The same man who, as a university student, had warned his colleagues who were about to attack the US diplomatic offices by saying: “We must not only show hatred towards America, but also towards the atheist and materialistic Soviet Union”.
The sanctions imposed again by the United States on Iran – with a deliberate choice by President Trump, after the US unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) of July 14, 2015, namely the P5+1 agreement to limit the enrichment of Iranian uranium – concern about 80% of Iran’s current oil exports.
After the choice made by President Trump, France offered 15 billion US dollars, if Iran adhered again to the full formulation of the JCPOA prior to the U.S. withdrawal from the Treaty, certainly to favour Iran’s economic recovery, but certainly also to avoid the probable U.S. block.
Moreover, since President Trump has denounced the P5+1 Agreement, Iran’s official sources have stated that the minimum oil exports that Iran wants to maintain are 700,000 barrels a day, so as to later reach 1.5 million barrels a day, should the West still want to renegotiate the entire agreement of July 14, 2015.
This is the reason underlying the restriction on consumption for Iranian citizens: that oil is needed to be sold and not to be distributed to Iranians at a subsidized price.
It is said that the savings resulting from this new restrictive rule on oil consumption will benefit the poor people, but now all Iranians are becoming poor.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia reached 12 million oil barrels a day in 2018, well over the six million that Iran exported in its pre-revolutionary phase.
The oil market is a “seller’s market”, as we used to say when we were still studying economics in universities.
Hence, after decades of commercial impositions and Western embargoes, all the Iranian oil industries – now devoid of any technological transfer and adequate investment – have seen their production levels plunge.
It was precisely Iran that in 1974, under the Shah’s rule, brought the OPEC price to 11.58 US dollars per barrel, equal to the current 53 US dollars.
It should also be recalled that in 1973, immediately after the Yom Kippur War, the Iranian Shah supported Israel and hence did not participate in the embargo of the OPEC Arab oil producing countries.
Then Iran became the fourth largest oil producer in the world, after the USSR, the USA and Saudi Arabia, with a daily level of 5.7 million barrels a day. This happened in 1977, but that level was never reached again later.
Since August 2014, however, the oil barrel extraction price has systematically fallen to the current 30%.
According to the latest data available, the oil barrel production cost sees Great Britain ranking first, followed by Brazil and Nigeria while, coincidentally, Iran and Saudi Arabia are competing for being the cheapest oil producing country, at least as far as extraction is concerned.
Some specialized analyses, however, suggest that Iran’s extraction cost is even considerably lower than the cost currently borne by Saudi Arabia.
This is an important factor of trade war between the two countries.
Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia charge taxes on extraction, unlike the Russian Federation, currently the most taxed country among producers. The last one is Venezuela, which, apart from the current political disasters, has a very high tax burden for extraction alone.
Let us revert, however, to the economic-strategic duel between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Currently the price of Iranian oil is below the price of Saudi Arabia and of other regional competitors.
The fact that now determines Iran’s real choices is the declared IPO of Saudi Aramco, the great Saudi oil company, a deal which is worth 1.5 trillion US dollars.
The Saudi government plans to initially sell a small amount of shares on the Stock Exchange of the Saudi capital, before assigning at least over 5% of the company.
At the beginning of the Saudi oil company’s privatization, Prince Mohammed bin Salman hoped for a higher final value, i.e. an official pricing totalling at least 2 trillion US dollars, but it has not gone so well so far.
Saudi Aramco’s annual net profit is about 100 billion and, at the time of the IPO, the Saudi company promised to pay annual dividends of at least 75 billion.
Later the company began a series of works for infrastructure and renewables and, above all, to redress the Saudi public debt, which has been recording a deficit since 2014.
In fact, despite Saudi Aramco’s considerable liquidity, the company took out a loan of 12 billion US dollars, all collected with long-term securities.
Shell, however, now pays a yearly 6% of its investment value as a dividend. Hence, if Saudi Aramco were really attractive on the market, the IPO total value should fall to 125 trillion US dollars.
Furthermore, the bonds already issued by the Saudi company, are now worth 4% only. Considering that bonds tend to be worth less than the foreseen growth of equity capital, this means that the Saudi oil growth rate gets lower than that of other competing sectors. Hence, inevitably, international investors tend to see oil as a declining sector.
If we were around the corridors of MOIS, the Iranian intelligence services, and around the intelligence offices of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, we would surely listen to considerations, ideas and proposals on the possibility of making the privatization of Saudi Aramco difficult and even a failure.
Nobody knows the exact amount of the Saudi oil reserves. This is a State secret.
Moreover, all oil companies – but this holds true also for Iran – are faced with issues triggered by climate change and the worldwide fall in demand for oil and gas.
Hence, either we proceed to their quick replacement with far less polluting oil products – and this is the reason underlying Qatar’s new strategic autonomy – or all oil investments tend to become stranded assets.
Therefore, in this case, the world’s investors do not place their capital in this sector, but focus on financial and productive areas with higher returns.
Also the Sovereign Fund of Norway, the largest sovereign fund in the world, is currently “decarbonizing” all its investment.
To some extent because it is fashionable and for taking a politically correct approach in the energy field, much more for a rational investment choice.
Hence, as was the case with cigarettes and tobacco products – in which the international capital is no longer interested – will the same soon happen also to oil and gas?
Therefore, if capital flight from the oil sector really takes place, while the United States is fully self-sufficient, Saudi Aramco shall separately sell other shareholdings of its oil company, even if only to fund its public budget deficit and the transformation of its domestic economy into a non-oil dependent system.
Just to put in the words of its oil Minister, Zanganeh, in Iran, however, the long embargo has turned many wells into “operational museums”.
The strategic issue, however, concerns above all the United States: in 2018, for example, in the midst of the shale oil expansion, the United States became the largest oil producing country in the world, with an average level of extraction to the tune of 15 million barrels a day.
As early as the Kippur War, following Henry Kissinger’ personal mediation, the Arab oil of the first real great post-war boom in prices was traded only in U.S. dollars, with the creation of preferential and confidential channels for investment defined in an agreement between Kissinger himself and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.
Obviously this has greatly expanded the global demand for U.S. dollars, which has enabled it to best manage its huge trade deficit while maintaining its very low rates.
Even today, as one of the FED Governors told his colleagues of the European Central Banks, “the dollar is our currency, but your problem”.
The United States controls all the world’s oil flows by tracking all bank transfers.
Moreover, it still maintains its military bases in 13 Gulf and Middle East countries.
This is the essential point that explains the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Outside the US technological and financial cycle, Iran can only play what political scientists and economists call the free rider role.
In contemporary political theory, the free rider is the whoever, within a group, avoids providing his contribution to the common good, because he/she believes that the group can work equally well despite his/her non-involvement.
Free riding is literally the behaviour of those who get on the bus without paying the ticket.
In economics, free riding is a process of underproduction or over-consumption of goods.
Currently we are basically in a situation of oil underproduction, decided by the OPEC price cartel, and also resulting from under-consumption, due to the structural decrease in oil consumption in the West, considering the great transition to renewables and the economic crisis of oil buyers.
The goods that are usually subject to free riding are those that cannot avoid not excluding non-payers.
The oil market cannot penalise bad payers, but the point is that it cannot even sanction those who change seller.
If anything, the punishment is geopolitical and military.
As Alfred O. Hirschman maintains, the free rider problem typically arises – in a cyclical way – in capitalist economies, just when a producer does not consider external costs: certainly the environmental cost in the oil and gas market, but above all the political or strategic cost connected to the goods purchased.
This is why Shiites and Sunnis are harming each other.
This is exactly the current condition of the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran, even in Pareto’s terms or of game theory.
In the phase of Arab Springs, initially organized by the United States, Saudi Arabia – although being a U.S. stable ally throughout the Middle East – strongly opposed the operations for “spreading democracy” staged by the United States.
Certainly Saudi Arabia helped the Egyptian Salafists after Hosni Mubarak’s fall and later the Sunnis of various jihadist or fundamentalist origin against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Later Saudi Arabia backed almost entirely Al Khalifa’s regime in Bahrain, where the ruling class is Sunni and the great majority of the population is Shiite.
With its Islamic Awakening project, Iran instead supported and funded some strands of the “democratic” rebellion in the Middle East and the Maghreb region, above all in Egypt and Libya (Ansar al Sharia, for example, and other groups opposing General Haftar).
Hence Saudi Arabia believes that Iran has excessively expanded its area of influence throughout the Arab world, also with the Iranian support to the Palestinian groups on the Israeli border, especially after the 2006 “August war” of Hezbollah. Later there was Iran’s commitment in favour of the Yemeni Houthi and also of the rebellious Shiite crowds in Bahrain. All those operations were seen by the Al-Saud dynasty as an illicit attempt at hegemony over the entire Arab, Shiite and Sunni world.
With a view to making more oil without extracting it or being embargoed.
Not to mention the operations of continuous destabilization that Iran pursues in the central areas of Saudi Arabia itself. These are areas that host a large Shiite minority, mainly in the provinces with the greatest level of oil extraction.
Hence if Bahrain collapses, Saudi Arabia will interpret this destabilization as the end of the cold peace between the Iran-led “Islamic Awakening” and its area of influence, not only the Shiite one.
Clumsy as usual, however, with the sanctions against Iran or through the USA, the Westerners artificially favoured Iran’s free riding.
Nevertheless, the United States has at least a real strategic interest in the region, followed, however, by the spineless EU, which anyway counts for nothing, also internally.
All this has given Iran the possibility of making a strategy of free riding and generalized insurgency in the Persian Gulf useful.
If, however, the two competitors avoid trying to win the whole stake, i.e. the entire and very unlikely control of the Greater Middle East, they will therefore have every interest in seeking a modus operandi, which will depend above all on the stability of the Syrian regime.
If Bashar al-Assad succeeds in stabilizing Syria, also with the help of Russia that, in the meantime is taking a good part of Iraqi oil, the trigger for a regional clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia will be avoided, and both will have every interest in negotiating an armed peace, i.e. a clear division of the areas of influence.
If this does not happen, we will have the long war in the Greater Middle East, with an uncertain outcome which, however, will lead to two certain results: the West and EU greater dependence on Iranian or Saudi oil products, as well as the US gradual expulsion from the region and finally the continuous attack on Israel. The ultimate scenario will be the definitive jihadist destabilization of the Maghreb region.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group