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War, Oil, and Peace in the Middle East

By Stephen Green, Stephen Green, author of ``Living by the Sword, America and Israel in the Middle East,'' lives in Montpelier, Vt. / April 6, 1989

A FEW weeks ago, while George Bush and James Baker were attending a funeral in Japan, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze made a 10-day tour of the Middle East. He was welcomed in Israel, whose government is discussing with the Soviet Union steps toward reestablishment of diplomatic relations. In a major address in Cairo during his trip, Mr. Shevardnadze detailed his government's position on a United Nations-sponsored Middle East peace conference, which includes a Soviet offer to act as a guarantor of Israeli national security after conclusion of an agreement. Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, he said, had decided to give the Arab-Israeli conflict a priority position on his political agenda, and saw the conflict as a major barrier to progress on US-Soviet disarmament.

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President Bush's response was to grumble that the Soviet Union had a ``limited role'' to play in the arena of Middle East peace. This is consistent with past US foreign policy: Nixon-Kissinger excluded the Soviets from the shuttle diplomacy of the mid-1970s, Jimmy Carter saw no reason to invite the USSR to Camp David, and it was a Russian offer to reflag three Kuwaiti tankers that persuaded Ronald Reagan to rush American ships to the Persian Gulf.

Through the years, this negativism about Soviet involvement in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict has derived from a larger view of the Russians as mischief-makers in the region - armorers of the ``radical'' Arab states, funders of terrorism, and a potential threat to Western strategic interests in Gulf oil reserves. Truly, an ``evil empire.'' Contrarians suggested to several US administrations that one way to modify Soviet behavior might be to get them involved in the peace process, but to no avail - the prevailing view was that they simply had no business there.

In the last year of the Reagan administration, a series of summit meetings with the new Soviet leader managed to advance US thinking beyond the ``evil empire'' stage in several areas, including disarmament and human rights. Nevertheless, on the all-important matter of Middle East peace, as reflected by Mr. Bush's comments on Shevardnadze's recent proposals, the official American view remains that this is simply not a Russian concern. For some reason, the White House seems to have missed the fact that the USSR has the same interest, the same ``business'' there that Western nations have - oil. It's quite simple, really. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the world's largest oil producer, is slowly running out of oil.

Significant signs of depletion in Soviet oil reserves appeared in 1976, when the rate of gain in oil production declined below 6 percent for the first time in over a decade. The event did not slip by the CIA, which shortly thereafter issued the first of two controversial reports on the subject, calling official Soviet targets for oil production into the 1980s ``optimistic.'' Several months later, Western energy analysts quoted in the respected Oil and Gas Journal concluded that, ``like the US, it seems the Soviet Union has found most of the `easy' oil.'' The Journal predicted that while Soviet natural gas production would continue to rise in future years, oil production would actually begin to decline in the 1980s. The CIA's second report on this subject, in 1977, projected that in the 1980s, the USSR would become a ``substantial'' importer of oil. THROUGH the early '80s, a ferocious debate broke out within the Soviet government on the need to adopt new, more realistic oil production targets. Production actually rose in this period, but the Oil Ministry argued that the new fields being discovered in western Siberia, which produces two-thirds of all Soviet oil, were diminishing in size. More important, the cost of extracting that oil was rising, rendering many of the new finds uneconomical to exploit. The Ministry of Geology and certain senior Communist Party officials, pointing to the rising production figures, were unconvinced.