Iran's Oil Woes Threaten the Mullahs

Much to the dismay of Ahmadinejad's government, oil prices seem to be falling. From a record $147 in July, oil is now trading at around $100 per barrel. And despite Hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which usually push the price of oil up, there is talk that prices may go down to $80 or even to the $70 per barrel mark.

"Oil prices are dropping because they are inflated," says Fadel Gheit, senior energy analyst for Oppenheimer, in an interview with Business Week. "You cannot sustain an artificial price forever. At the end of the day supply-demand fundamentals will take over." According to an increasing number of analysts, not even the mighty Chinese economy and its insatiable appetite for oil can keep prices at current levels, because a lot of "hype" is involved in estimating future levels of demand.

The Iranians see no hype in the danger which the falling price of oil entails for them. This concern was openly expressed by Iran's oil minister, who said that as far as his government is concerned, "$100 a barrel was the lowest appropriate price." Meanwhile, at the recent OPEC meeting, Iran failed to convince other members to cut production, in order  to push oil prices up. Therefore, unless there is a serious event, the government of President Ahmadinejad may find itself facing the nightmare scenario of falling oil prices.

With presidential elections 10 months away and sanctions hurting, this is the last thing Ahmadinejad needs. High oil prices have been like a morphine injection which has kept the sick Iranian economy alive. Despite oil and gas income for this year jumping to $81 billion, representing a whopping 31% increase from last year, Iranian people have seen no improvement in their economic welfare. If anything, the situation is getting worse. Inflation has reached the post-revolution record level of 27%. To make matters worse, the government of Ahmadinejad is coming up with new ways to reduce subsidies which Iran's citizens receive. First it introduced its controversial petrol-rationing scheme in June 2007. This scheme failed miserably in its plans to reduce traffic and pollution.

Now the Ahmadinejad government wants to reduce government subsidies paid to Iranian families for their gas and electricity bill as well. The first part of this plan, which many Iranians find very annoying, involves each family filling out forms from the government, in which they have to declare their income and assets. Many rich people are openly saying that they are cheating, because declaring a high income could translate into a serious fall in the subsidies received. Others are withdrawing money from the banks in order to hide it from the government inspector's prying eyes, thus leading to a fall in savings levels.