Middle East

In the pipeline: More regime change
By Hooman Peimani

An Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, has reported that Israel is seriously considering restarting a strategically important oil pipeline that once transferred oil from the Iraqi city of Mosul to Israel's northern port of Haifa. Given the Israeli claim of a positive US approach to the plan, the Israeli project provides grounds for a theory that the ongoing war against Iraq is in part a joint US, British and Israeli design for reshaping the Middle East to serve their particular interests, including their oil requirements.

According to the daily, Israeli National Infrastructure Minister Yosef Paritzky considers the pipeline project as economically justifiable as it would reduce the country's cost of oil imports. This is currently very high, as Israel imports oil from Russia. There would also be a strategic justification for the project, as importing oil from an oil supplier in Israel's close proximity would increase its fuel security and would address its major handicap, that is, its total dependence on imported fuel from far-away suppliers. While living in the oil-rich Middle East, the Israelis cannot count on regional oil exporters because of the existing Arab-Israeli conflict. Prior to the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran, which was on friendly terms with Israel, provided its oil requirements. That arrangement ended in 1979 when the new Iranian revolutionary regime cut ties with Israel.

Paritzky has requested an assessment of the Mosul-Haifa pipeline's current state, which ceased to operate in 1948. Presumably, the pipeline will require major repair and/or upgrading, if not an overhaul, as it has not been in use for more than half a century. However, its full operation, including the required repair work, needs the consent of Iraq, the would-be oil supplier, and Syria, a country neighboring both Iraq and Israel, through which the pipeline passes.

Iraqi consent will be out of the question as long as the current regime of Saddam Hussein is in power. As acknowledged by the Israeli minister, a prerequisite for the project is, therefore, a new regime in Baghdad with friendly ties with Israel. However, such a regime, if ever it comes to power, will still require Syria's consent to operationalize the pipeline. Given the overall political environment in the Middle East and Israel's continued occupation of Syria's Golan Heights, the existing Syrian regime will never grant its consent as long as the status quo prevails. As stated by the Iranian government, during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) when Iraq enjoyed cordial and close relations with Israel's mentor, the United States, Israel tried, but failed, to resume the oil flow through the pipeline. Syria, a friend of Iran and an enemy of Iraq, blocked the flow of Iraqi oil.

Hence, unless the pipeline were redirected through Jordan, another country bordering Israel and Iraq with normalized relations with Israel, the pipeline project will require a different regime in Syria. In other words, regime change in both Iraq and Syria is the prerequisite for the project. As Paritzky did not mention a redirecting option, it is safe to suggest that the Israelis are also optimistic about a regime change in Syria in the near future.

Oil pipelines are a highly vulnerable means of exporting oil, requiring a predictable long-term reliability of the countries through which they pass. Knowing this, the Israelis can only begin their technical assessment of the pipeline once they are convinced that the existing political barriers can be overcome. This requires new regimes in Baghdad and Damascus.

According to the Israeli minister, the United States will back his project since the pipeline would bring Iraqi oil directly from Iraq to the Mediterranean. In such a case, the Americans could bypass the Persian Gulf for their imported Iraqi oil, while having secured access to the world's second-largest oil reserves. Especially since the early 1990s, they have repeatedly expressed their concern about over-reliance on the Persian Gulf for their oil imports, which contains more than 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. Given the concentration of the major oil exporters in that region, its instability could interrupt or completely stop the flow of oil by oil tankers, with a consequent major impact on the US economy, as it is so dependent on oil.

To decrease their vulnerability to such a worst-case scenario, the Americans have sought to diversify their oil suppliers. Apart from the Caspian oil-exporters, they have resorted to non-OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) African countries (Chad and Angola), whose resources are also closer to the United States than those of the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. However, these alternative suppliers could only allay the US fear for a while, given the small size of their oil deposits. Thus, in the long run, the US will have to import heavily from the Persian Gulf region, where existing oil reserves will outlast those of other regions, and while some of its oil-rich countries, such as Iran, keep finding new oilfields.

Given this situation, finding reliable alternative export routes and means to sea routes and oil tankers for Persian Gulf oil exports is the long-term solution for the Americans requiring an increasing amount of imported oil. In this regard, land-based pipelines to carry oil to easily accessible warm-water open seas such as the Mediterranean would be a suitable option. A fully operational Mosul-Haifa pipeline could address that US problem, while satisfying Israel's oil requirements at same time.

The Israeli oil pipeline plan, though, runs contrary to the stated US war objectives in Iraq. The two key members of the "coalition of the willing" - the United States and the United Kingdom - have rejected oil as a motivation for the war, a point not taken seriously by many all over the world. Nevertheless, the Israeli plan, the US-stated goal of securing Iraqi oilfields, including those of Mosul, and the declared US objective of a regime change in Iraq offer some evidence to the contrary.

Against this background, the US government's growing anti-Syrian rhetoric, including accusing Syria of supplying military equipment to Iraq, may well be the initial stage toward the expansion of the war to Syria. If this happens, it could lead to a regime change there to serve various purposes, including the cooperation of Syria in future oil exports via the Mosul-Haifa pipeline.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

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Apr 4, 2003


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