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Atlantic Man: An oil agency for Iraq

By Ira Straus
From the International Desk
Published 4/20/2003 6:28 AM
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WASHINGTON, April 20 (UPI) -- The really big prize for the international community in Iraq is not the administration of the country, nor reconstruction contracts, but an ultimate international ownership of the oil that lies under Iraqi ground. This would conform with the U.S. interest, because in oil matters the U.S. interest coincides with the interest of the overwhelming majority worldwide.

Ninety percent of the world's people live in oil importing countries, not oil exporting countries. Those 90 percent need low oil prices and a steady supply. Let them vote and the American people will always win.

A less dramatic, but also less reliable, way for protecting U.S. interests in Iraqi oil is to rely on a combination of formal Iraqi ownership and informal U.S. "influence" through privatizations that would end up going to reliable business entities. This is being considered because it seems easier, and it would indeed lead to improvements in oil management and a better distribution of interests served by Iraqi oil.

However, it would also be seen as corrupt by large swathes of the global public. The war would be widely viewed as an oil grab on behalf of U.S. and allied business interests. Any Iraqi regime that accepted this scheme would risk being viewed as a puppet regime. De-legitimation would set the stage for re-nationalization down the road.

The only way to get stronger protection for consumer oil interests is to stake a moral claim to the oil on behalf of the global public. This can be done by setting up a global oil administration agency. Not the United Nations Security Council, where the French and Russian vetoes on this issue would be used for selfish purposes but a normal competent specialized international agency in which countries get a voted weighted either by population or by their degree of involvement with oil, whether as consumers or producers.

If the U.N. system would not agree to sponsor this, then some international agency with authority on energy issues could temporarily substitute for the role and expand its consultative council to a wider group of countries for this purpose.

Privatizations and leases of oil fields and development contracts could be made by the global oil agency according to its professional judgment. The onus would be on it, not on the United States, for any charges of corruption. There would no longer be any appearance that the war was an oil grab by U.S. business. And there would be little likelihood of the world's allowing a future Iraqi regime to take the oil away again.

This is because the enormous global public interest in a stable flow of oil and in low prices would be given a powerful voice through the joint agency -- powerful enough to reduce the Iraqi interest in oil to its proper subordinate moral position.

Against those who would argue, "this is Iraq's oil", the global public would begin to discover the obvious answers: that it is the world's oil, developed by Western science, invested in by Western business, and nationalized at gunpoint, in contravention of legal norms, by the previous Iraqi regime.

Iraq would have a right to a generous rent on the use of the land and environment, but nothing more. Its interest would find its natural subsidiary place within the hierarchy of international interests. The interest of six billion oil consumers would form a base of a sturdy pyramid of interests that would be extremely difficult to overturn.

(Ira Straus teaches international relations at University of Tuebingen and at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.)

Copyright 2001-2003 United Press International


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