Too Many 'Rogue' States

March 21, 1995|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

Berkeley, California. -- The White House insistence on branding Iran as a ''rogue'' state undid Conoco's oil-drilling deal with Tehran. But it also threatens to undo a century of Anglo-American control over Mideast oil -- a control that has allowed American consumers in particular to enjoy low prices at the gasoline pump for that same long stretch of time.

Two forces in particular are now challenging that control. One, well documented in the U.S. press, is the Islamic revolution. The second, much less known, is the emergence of France and Russia as contenders vying for their own access to Mideast oil. Both forces stand to benefit from the Middle Eastern power vacuum created by Washington's policy of branding certain oil-rich Middle Eastern nations as rogues largely because of their opposition to the U.S.-initiated Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Even if the rogue policy helps forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace, it could, by century's end, leave Israel as Washington's only ally in a region dominated by radical Islamist states. Meanwhile huge French, Russian and other non-Anglo-American oil companies could be pumping most of the Middle East's oil, driving U.S. gas prices up to $5 a gallon or more.

America went into two world wars to defend Britain, in part so as to rescue British control over Mideast oil. After World War II, America took over the lion's share of that control from a badly weakened Britain. Every administration since then has viewed the retention of a workable degree of Anglo-American control as its main priority in the Middle East. The sine qua non for achieving it was an even-handed approach to all countries in the region.

Thus in 1956, when Britain sought, along with France and Israel, to seize the Suez Canal from a radicalized Egypt, the U.S. ordered it to stop to avoid fanning nationalist fervor throughout the rest of the region. Again in the years after Israel's lopsided victory in the June 1967 Six Days War, the Nixon administration worked hard to restore balance in U.S. relations with Arabs and Israelis. Henry Kissinger's step-by-step diplomacy with Egypt led the Camp David accords. And in 1990-91, George Bush's grand Gulf War coalition marked the high point of this strategy by including such erstwhile arch-enemies of Israel as Saudi Arabia and Syria.

A second policy that sought to penalize countries opposing Israel began to develop in the early 1970s. First Libya, ruled by Islamic Marxist Muammar el Kadafi, was demonized. Then Iraq and Syria were branded as ''terrorist'' states. Finally Iran was added to the list following its Islamic revolution.

Until recently, American administrations made sure that this secondary policy did not threaten the primary policy of securing access to Mideastern oil. But in its desperate rush to achieve Israeli-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian settlements, the Clinton administration may be allowing the secondary policy to become its top priority.

Washington today has written off as rogues three major oil producers: Iran, Iraq and Libya. The Sudan, which has important oil potential, may soon join the list. Any time Syria, which has no oil, gets out of hand it too will once again be declared terrorist or rogue. With radical Islamic forces likely to assume power in Algeria and posing threats to regimes in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and even Libya, it is not difficult to imagine that most of the Arab Middle East could be branded as rogue by century's end -- as happened with ''Red China'' half a century ago.

As these trends further isolate the U.S., France and Russia are poised to move into the vacuum. France's giant Elf Aquitaine oil company has long sought to become a major pumper of world oil. Elf Aquitaine, along with the big Italian oil company Agip, is active on the oil scene in the Caucasus region, waiting for a foothold further south. And, according to the French daily Le Monde, France's Interior Minister Charles Pasqua is leading a campaign to cut the Americans and British down to size in oil-rich African countries.

Meanwhile the French are also pursuing ties with rogue Iraq even as they strengthen commercial and diplomatic ties with rogue Iran. President Francois Mitterrand's embrace of rogue Fidel Castro in Paris last week sent a clear signal to Washington: We may be friends but we're also rivals.

More worrisome is rapidly reviving Russian power in the Middle East. Last fall Russia, like France, used the scare that Iraq was preparing to attack Kuwait as a pretext for renewing its old ties with Baghdad. At the same time it is building a nuclear reactor in Iran and selling it advanced weapons. And even as Syria indicates its willingness to resume talks in Washington with Israel, Russia is restoring its former close ties with Damascus.

If U.S. relations with France and Russia should continue to deteriorate, the two could decide to work together to put an end to Anglo-American oil domination of Mideastern oil.

If that challenge should succeed even as radical Islamic forces come to power in the region, President Clinton could go down in American history as the president who ''lost the Middle East'' and in whose administration Americans' long enjoyment of cheap oil prices finally ended.

Franz Schurmann, author of ''The Logic of World Power,'' wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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