Behind Soviet President Brezhnev's proposal for a pact against great-power meddling in the Persian Gulf is the Soviet Union's own approaching energy crunch.
The USSR is still the world's biggest oil producer -- ahead of both Saudi Arabia and the US -- and the third biggest exporter. But the Soviet leaders know that they are coming ever closer to:
1. Crossing the watershed, possibly as early as the middle of this decade, from being a net exporter of oil to becoming a net importer -- if it is to continue to meet the basic needs of its empire and clients, as well as its own.
2. Having to make the basic policy decision on how to meet its own overall oil needs as well as those of its empire and its clients from the mid-1980s onward.
The choice for the Soviet Union will center on what priority to give to these two options:
* Concentrating money and effort on developing its own oil deposits east of the Urals in western Siberia, far from present centers of population and industry and in terrain both difficult of access and climatically uninviting. Of the Soviet Union's known energy resources, some 85 percent lie east of the Urals, whereas roughly the same percentage of the Soviet population lives and works west of that mountain-divide between Europe and Asia.
* Turning to non-Soviet sources. This means to the countries of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- and more particularly to the latter's Persian Gulf members, now accounting for roughly one-third of total world oil production, the bulk of which is exported. Gulf oil is geographically more easy of access than is western Siberian oil to both the Soviet Union and to those countries now dependent on Soviet oil.
The problem for the Soviet leaders is how to get their hands on Gulf oil on terms acceptable to them -- either militarily or commercially. Mr. Brezhnev's proposal for an agreed hands-off policy in the Gulf area is directly connected with this problem.
To the Soviets, the cost for either the military or the commercial route to Gulf oil is likely to be high.
A Soviet military move forward from Afghanistan into the Gulf area, or even by way of a disintegrating Iran into the latter's Khuzestan oil fields, runs the risk of war with the US. For this reason, the military route is at present less likely than the commercial one --area produces a free-for-all among the powers.
But the commercial route would not be easy either. If the USSR tries to compete with the US for OPEC oil on an open world market, Soviet buyers would probably be strapped for the hard currency needed to pay the escalating prices OPEC sellers would be able to charge because of US-Soviet competition for a limited commodity both desperately need. The people with the hard-currency advantage are the competition in the noncommunist industrialized world, notably the Americans, the West Germans, and the Japanese.
At the moment, of course, it is these people with the hard currency who have a corner on the Gulf oil market. In this, the Gulf producers acquiesce because in the last resort they fix the price and their customers pay it. The question for prospective Soviet competitors for the same oil is whether they can gain access to it commercially at a cut rate or on bargain terms. The Gulf producers are unlikely to accede to this without the application of discomfiting Soviet pressure -- pressure likened to that exercised by a Mafia "godfather" in an article in Fortune magazine earlier this year.
To be able to apply this pressure effectively, the Soviet Union needs to expel from the area even the shadow of US protective military power over such Gulf producers as Saudi Arabia. If the Soviets gained leverage over traditional Gulf rulers by convincingly threatening to destabilize their regimes, Moscow might, indeed, be able Mafia-style to dictate conditions to them for oil supplies on easy terms. That oil, of course, would then be denied the US and other noncommunist buyers.
Hence Mr. Brezhnev's proposal for a Persian Gulf policy based on a hands-off pact between the powers. (He left unsaid what he knows: With the US out of the area, there would be no counterweight to the geographical nearness of the USSR to the Gulf oil fields.) In choosing to make the proposal before his Indian hosts in New Delhi Dec. 10, he was skillfully selecting an audience that has always been sympathetic to any suggestion for keeping superpower conflict as far away as possible from the Indian Ocean.
(There are those in Europe who worry about the potential for parallel Mafia-like Soviet pressure on Norway for easy access to Norway's North Sea oil. Significantly, reservations about Norway's continued membership in NATO is growing among Norwegian public opinion.)
Beyond these scenarios there remains undecided in the West the debate over how best to deal with an oil-hungry Soviet Union. Some argue that Moscow will behave more reasonably if the West helps rather than hinders the Soviet search for oil. Others argue that since Soviet aims remain basically expansive and aggressive, the West would be foolish to help the Soviets in pursuit of them in any way.