Oil, Iran, and stability in the Gulf: Why the Gulf states want to keep
Iran in a box

By Stephen M. Walt

December 08, 2012 "Information Clearing House" - We are often told
that Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are deeply worried about
Iran, and eager for the United States to take care of the problem.
This is usually framed as a reflection of the Sunni-Shiite divide, and
linked to concerns about Iranian subversion, the role of Hezbollah,
and of course the omnipresent fretting about Iran's nuclear energy
program.

I have heard senior Saudi officials voice such worries on more than
one occasion, and I don't doubt that their fears are sincere. But
there may be another motive at work here, and Americans would do well
to keep that possibility in mind.

That motive is the Gulf states' interest in keeping oil prices high
enough to balance their own budgets, in a period where heightened
social spending and other measures are being used to insulate these
regimes from the impact of the Arab Spring. According to the IMF,
these states need crude prices to remain upwards of $80 a barrel in
order to keep their fiscal house in order.

Which in turn means that Saudi Arabia et al also have an interest in
keeping Iran in the doghouse, so that Iran can't attract foreign
companies to refurbish and expand its oil and gas fields and so that
it has even more trouble marketing its petroleum on global markets. If
UN and other sanctions were lifted and energy companies could operate
freely in Iran, its oil and gas production would boom, overall
supplies would increase, and the global price would drop.

Not only might this new wealth make Iran a more formidable power in
the Gulf region--as it was under the Shah -- but lower oil and gas
prices would make it much harder for Saudi Arabia and other Gulf
states to stave off demands for political reform through social
spending. Saudi Arabia could cut production to try to keep prices up,
but that would still mean lower overall revenues and a budget
shortfall.

So when you hear people telling you how worried the Gulf states are
about Iran, and how they support our efforts to keep tightening the
screws, remember that it's not just about geopolitics, or the
historical divide between Sunnis and Shiites or between Arabs and
Persians. It's also about enabling certain ruling families to keep
writing checks. Keep that in mind the next time you fill your gas tank
or pay your home heating bill, or the next time somebody tells you the
United States ought to think seriously about a preemptive war.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of
international relations at Harvard University.

This article was originally posted at Foreign Policy