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Iraqi oil increase could redraw the Gulf map

By Greg Priddy

It might seem premature to address how the world oil market and other regional powers will accommodate rising Iraq oil production capacity -- considering that the outcome of Iraq's recent election remains unresolved, and the process of putting together a governing coalition has barely begun. But some of the broad dilemmas that more Iraqi oil will create are structural in nature, and not terribly dependent on the new government's makeup. One thing's for sure: Both Saudi Arabia and Iran will face major challenges to their interests if this scenario plays out.

The Saudi-Iraq axis is simpler than the Iran-Iraq one. If Iraq's production capacity rises to even half of the clearly unrealistic 12 million bpd by 2020, which was a goal cited by Oil Minister Hussein al Shahristani, it will likely serve to maintain some of the current overhang of spare capacity for longer than would have otherwise been the case. This would prevent a retightening of the world oil market that may have put upward pressure on prices. Saudi policy will have to confront how to deal with this situation -- both in terms of whether to delay investment in their own capacity, and how to accommodate what has the potential to be a much stronger second-place producer within OPEC. At some point, Saudi Arabia may approach the new Iraqi government for a discussion about how to renegotiate the system of OPEC quotas in order to accommodate Iraq's increasing oil production with both countries' interests in mind. But depending on how the bilateral relationship evolves, achieving this sort of cooperation may be problematic. Iraq has already added written provisions into its service contracts with foreign oil companies dealing with government-mandated output cuts. This demonstrates that the Iraqi side is beginning to grapple with the idea that it may at some point be adding capacity to an oversupplied market and need to exercise restraint.

The implications of increasing Iraqi oil are even more complicated when it comes to Iran. US secondary sanctions under the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) have been reasonably successful at hindering development of additional Iranian oil and gas production capacity. While they haven't stopped activity altogether, they've kept it at a level where the volume of oil available for export is likely to continue its gradual slide over the next decade as production declines and domestic demand continues to grow. In this scenario, an eventual retightening of the world oil market with attendant higher prices would clearly be in Iran's national interest, helping it to maintain revenues even while volumes fall a bit during the next several years. The increase in Iraqi capacity, however, could prevent this from happening -- taking a toll on Iran's government finances, and potentially creating tension between the two Gulf neighbors. Given the substantial amount of Iranian influence within Iraq, and the still-latent disputes about the border and control over the Shatt al Arab waterway, this market-driven tension could potentially spill over into the geopolitical realm.

All of this, of course, is dependent on whether Iraq's internal stability permits large-scale oil development to move at a rapid pace, which remains a big "if" at this point. Still, it's not just a matter for the oil market. This situation has the potential to substantially redraw the map of state finances and national power in the Gulf.

Greg Priddy is an analyst in the Global Energy and Natural Resources practice at Eurasia Group.

ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images

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