Revolutionary Iran is upsetting the OPEC applecart for its own ends.
But, ironically, the indirect beneficiaries of this could be the oil-consuming ''great Satan'' of the United States (as Ayatollah Khomeini calls it) and its allies - not least all their millions of automobile drivers who may now see prices at their gas stations fall a little further.
Iran's need for hard cash after 31/ 2 locust years of revolutionary upheaval, including nearly two years of ultimately successful war against Iraq, underlie the OPEC impasse over production quotas.
The revolutionary regime in Tehran is apparently set on restoring Iran to the role it had under the Shah as the second-largest oil exporter, after Saudi Arabia, within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. The Iranians, as they showed at the July 9-10 meeting of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna, are prepared to pursue this aim with little regard for its effect on other oil exporters.
The Vienna meeting was called to review production quotas set last March to keep oil prices steady. It broke up without agreement either on individual ceilings or on a date for a further review.
It is perhaps too soon to assess the broader consequences of this disarray. Outsiders have in the past prematurely forecast OPEC's demise.
But the acrimony in Vienna is likely to have the political effect of sharpening the conflict in the Gulf between the Saudis and the Iranians. That conflict has in fact been inherent in OPEC from the outset.
The Shah's Iran (like the Ayatollah's Iran) wanted to get the most it could as quickly as it could for its oil. The Saudis, with far bigger oil reserves, wanted a long-term steady and profitable market. The Iranian revolution has merely exacerbated the differences.
As for oil consumers, if Iran continues to sell as much oil as it can at what are in effect cut rates on the free or spot market, the overall market could be tilted further in the direction of buyers than it is at the moment.
The base term contract price for Arab marker crude agreed by OPEC last March is $34 a barrel. At the end of June, it was selling on the spot market for $32 a barrel. It remains to be seen if, in the wake of the Vienna meeting, oil producers who can afford to - particularly Saudi Arabia - will quietly juggle output downward to lessen the likelihood of a price war.
OPEC agreed on production ceilings last March to meet the challenge of a sudden oil glut and a downward slide in oil prices:
First, a ceiling of 17.5 million barrels a day (bpd) was set for total OPEC output.
Second, individual quotas were agreed on for the 13 OPEC members. Of these, eight producing nations accepted cutbacks, the Saudis making the biggest. Kuwait's production was left unchanged. And four nations (Iran, Libya, Algeria, and Gabon) were given slight increases.
At that time, Iran gave notice that it would not abide by the quota agreement unless certain ''criteria'' were met.
The Iranians have followed through on their threat. The ceiling fixed for them in March was 1.2 million bpd. In recent weeks, Iran has reportedly been producing up to double its quota and selling much of it below contract marker price on the spot market. (The Saudi ceiling, incidentally, was set at 7 million bpd and are believed to have been producing only about 6.5 million bpd.)
If the reports on Iranian production are accurate, Iran is back in the same role it had under the Shah as second only to Saudi Arabia as a producer within OPEC. But in the Shah's day, Iranian output came closer to Saudi Arabia's, reaching 6 million bpd during one splurge.
In recent weeks, Libya and Iran have reportedly also been ''sinning'' in the same direction as Iran by exceeding their March quotas. Libya needs to sell more oil to compensate it for its loss of the US market, closed to it by the Reagan administration - although some Libyan oil is reaching US buyers in a roundabout way.
Nigeria, with a huge population and deeply overspent on its development plans , also urgently needs to do all it can to get cash wherever it can.
When OPEC set output ceilings in March to deal with the oil glut that had unexpectedly developed, member governments counted on a modest economic upturn in the industrialized noncommunist world over the ensuing quarter. They hoped this would give a boost to the demand for oil among major purchasers. That has not happened.
Adding to OPEC's dilemma has been the unexpected failure of major oil companies around the world to replenish their inventories (or stocks). Instead, the oil companies have been drawing heavily on their stocks during the first part of this year.
The companies apparently have calculated that they could risk taking this course because another oil shortage was unlikely. But if fallout from the current war in Lebanon included another Saudi-supported Arab oil embargo, the companies' assessment could still be proven wrong.