Support Asian powers' thirst for oil threatens to scupper American efforts to isolate Iran
US efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear ambitions are colliding with the energy concerns of Asia's economic powers, testing Washington's ability to form a diplomatic coalition and its influence on oil and gas markets.
Officials tell the Financial Times that the US is looking at "creative" ways of addressing the energy worries of China, Japan and India - major buyers of Iranian oil.
The US is searching for a viable energy framework that would persuade such thirsty customers to halt planned investments in Iran's energy sector or even contemplate the shock of a sudden break in oil exports.
Officials and analysts are sceptical it can be done and, so far, *US moves seem to be having the opposite effect*.
So, this is in the context of the ongoing escalation of tensions with Iran by the Bush regime, and they are bumping against the (obvious to any rational observer) obstacle of oil.
Iran, second largest producer in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, is racing to conclude big energy deals with all three countries before possible discussion of sanctions reaches the United Nations Security Council.
China, meanwhile, brought its concerns to Washington last month, laying out three principles that underpinned its energy policy: no interference in the internal affairs of others, no nuclear proliferation and secure energy supplies from the Middle East.
The US urged China to avoid investing in Iran; China said it would support diplomatic efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear crisis as long as oil supplies were not affected.
That's the core issue, really. However important nuclear issues may be, they are simply not as vital, in the short and medium term, to any oil-importing country as a secure supply of the 'black gold'. And Asian countries, which import most of their oil from the Middle East, are particularly worried.
The US message to China and Japan - as well as India and Pakistan, which want to share a gas pipeline from Iran - is that Iran cannot be trusted as a reliable energy provider.
But the Bush administration's image is also taking a hit. "The general perception in the oil industry is that the biggest risk to the oil industry is the US administration," commented Fareed Mohamedi, chief economist with PFC Energy consultants. This was China's perception too, he said, following the destruction of Iraq's oil industry after the US invasion and the long-standing US embargo that has hobbled Iran's energy sector.
When you are seen as the cause of the problem, it's hard to sell yourself as the provider of the solution.
Say that again: *in the international oil arena, the Bush administration is seen as the biggest problem around.* How can that be good for US overall security?
To enhance its independence of energy supplies, China is investing where the US is absent: Iran, Sudan, Burma, Uzbekistan and possibly Venezuela. "They fear that in the case of conflict or a cold war, the US will interfere in China's oil supplies," Mr Mohamedi said. "By saying 'we can help', the US is making the situation even worse. There is very little the US can offer China."
And thus China looks for solutions elsewhere, in moves that only annoy - or worry - the Bushistas more. It would be ironic that the Bush policies are the main reason the Bush enemies (like Venezuela or Iran) are being helped or protected to some extent by all sorts of significant players, starting with China and Japan, but it simply reflects the fact that these players are rational and doing what they can to secure supplies. They don't want to piss off America, but some things are simply more important.
And thus the Bushistas are unleashing a real domino-effect as both energy importers and oil exporters build links and try to get out, together, of the sphere of influence of the US. And the USA are becoming increasingly isolated on the world scene. Still the biggest boy around, but the crowd around is thiniing and that of the concerned or hostile onlookers is growing.
One option would be to tap the oil stockpiles of the 26 industrialised nations co-ordinated by the International Energy Agency. Claude Mandil, IEA executive director, recently said emergency stocks were enough to fill an 18-month hole if Iranian oil exports stopped. Countries negotiating with Iran "did not have to worry about an eventual loss of Iranian oil because you have the means to deal with it," he said.
Despite these assurances, analysts say crude oil could easily hit $100 (€84, £58) a barrel if Iran was taken off the market.
That's probably an optimistic scenario. If 3mb/d of Iranian exports are taken out of the market at a time when spare capacity is, at best, 1-1.5mb/d, that means that balancing the market will require demand destruction - or dipping in stocks - to the tune of 2 mb/d, a pretty huge flow of oil. Expect shortages, rationing, and increase vulnerability to any other shock (bad weather, strike, an accident anywhere) - and that's if oil keeps on flowing unimpeded by Iran through the Hormuz Straits from other Gulf producers.
A US official said Washington felt it had a "bit more leverage" over its ally, but that Japan had complained China would fill any investment gap left by Tokyo. "They tell us to solve the China problem first," he said.
And that's the story with oil: you cannot solve the problem partially: you have to solve it in full. If there is a shortage for anybody, then the whole market will suffer.
The heart of this story is that our civilisation's dependence on oil is making a mockery of any attempts at trying to influence the regional powers in the Middle East. So long as we guzzle oil, they hold us by the balls.
And the oil industry, and the main other oil consumers, are basically saying to Bush: stop pissing these guys off, they are beginning to squeeze, and it hurts.
And that's not even taking into account the fact that peak oil may be around the corner, and that supply is not increasing fast enough to cover the current increasing demand...
So Bush's links to oil inside the US, and thus his lack of willingness to do anything about the country's dependence on the stuff, kills off any capacity for action in oil production regions (apart from that of breaking things up, which only worsens the problem), unites other countries in their opposition to US policies, and ends up terrifying the oil industry.
Yep, it would be funny if it weren't so scary.