US, Soviet moves watched warily by oil sheikhs, draft-age Americans
Beriut, Lebanon — After stating that the United States will use any means necessary, including force, to repel a threat to the mideast oil fields, President Carter may find that talking tough is a lot easier than doing something about it.
The Soviets, despite their invasion of Afghanistan on the edge of the oil-field area, probably will learn the same lesson.
Western and Arab analysts here expect a good deal of superpower saber-rattling in the weeks and months to come. There will be pressure on the Arabs to choose sides. Washington may well declare psychological war on Moscow -- juggling military aid grants, repositioning warships, and seeking a land base somewhere in the Gulf region.
But Arab diplomats and Western military analysts say that beyond this revival of cold-war brinkmanship, both superpowers are likely to find tricky going.
At the heart of rising superpower tension is oil. At the heart of Arab oil -- about half the world's known reserves -- are two leading producers, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
The Americans already get most of their imported crude from the Saudis. Washington wants to assure continued access. The Soviets, at present energy self-sufficient, are believed likely to need outside oil by the end of the decade.
But in the battle for Arab petroleum, analysts here argue, the superpowers will find finesse more useful than force. They point to two related reasons:
* Comparatively moderate Saudi Arabia and radical Iraq share an Arab strain of nonalignment. They are suspicious of both superpowers, or at least are reluctant to align formally with either.
* "There is just no direct, practical military means to get at Saudi or Iraqi oil," in the words of a Western diplomat who has prepared a study on the subject for his government. He and most other analysts here assume that both oil powers would simply incapacitate their wells at the first sign of outside intervention.
"All it takes," the diplomats said, "is a match, or a marksman with a high-powered rifle, or a single spud [used drill bit] in a well."
Even with a springboard on the very edge of Saudi Arabia -- as the Soviets have long had in Marxist South Yemen -- neither superpower would be able to seize Arab oil fields in working order, the analysts maintain.
"It would take thousands, maybe tens of thousands of men to seize and seal off the fields," a Western military expert said."And if, as seems virtually assured, the wells were disabled or torched or whatever, these troops would be holding areas that might take as long as eight years to be back at full production."
The assumption here is that neither of the great powers would be foolish enough to embark on such a venture.
Indeed, even President Carter suggested in his tough Jan. 23 State of the Union address that the main Soviet "threat" in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion was to the "movement" of oil through its main water routes, the Gulf and the Red Sea.
Yet here, too, there seem limits to what either superpower can do. "The Soviets, after all, presumably want long-term access to Middle East oil," one Arab analyst said. "They aren't likely to get it by closing the shipping routes , much less by blowing up a few tankers."
There are only two practical ways for the Soviets to win guaranteed access to Arab oil, the commentators believe. One is to cuddle up to the Saudi and Iraqi regimes. That will be hard, although Moscow has been trying in recent years.
The other way Moscow might get in on Arab oil is by subverting the Saudi and Iraqi governments, difficult though that may be.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iraq is enamored of Moscow. But both also have issued frank "no thank you's" in recent days to hints of any closer, formal tie with Washington.