Saudi-Iran Rivalry Looms Over OPEC

Iran and other states are expected to press Saudi Arabia to scale back its record output when OPEC meets next week in Vienna, or face the risk of a new oil-price collapse.

Saudi Arabia's move to keep oil flowing brings crude prices down.

Iran and other states are expected to press Saudi Arabia to scale back its record output when OPEC meets next week in Vienna, or face the risk of a new oil-price collapse.

Much has changed since the group last met in December and managed to put aside its differences to agree to collectively produce 30 million barrels a day. For one thing, oil prices in London have fallen below $100 a barrel as the world economic outlook has worsened. For another, world powers have raised the pressure on Iran's nuclear program while urging Saudi Arabia to pump more oil to make up for any Iranian shortfall.

The combination of these factors has sown discord in OPEC, with several members fretting over the current output level. Yet despite the rhetoric, few analysts expect OPEC to make dramatic shifts next week.

OPEC is currently pumping nearly 6% above its production ceiling, according to most estimates. Nearly all of the excess comes from Saudi Arabia, which again finds itself in the OPEC spotlight—and firing line.

Iranian OPEC envoy Muhammad Ali Khatibi recently warned that growing "instability" in the oil market would likely lead to a "serious decline in oil prices," citing "increasing production by some members, especially Saudi Arabia."

Algerian oil minister Youcef Yousfi said OPEC members are "worried about the deterioration of the market." He added: "I hope we will find a consensus to correct this situation if it is confirmed the ceiling of 30 million barrels a day was breached."

Yet there is little indication that Saudi Arabia—OPEC's lone member with significant spare capacity—sees anything wrong with today's market. In fact, the recent decline in oil prices appears to be following the kingdom's strategy.

Speaking in Australia last month, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi said he wanted Brent oil prices to trade at "around $100," unusually specific comments for the normally circumspect minister. Since that time oil prices have largely been in retreat mode, hitting $99.47 Brent Friday, down 46 cents, after peaking at $128 earlier this year during the height of the Iran anxiety.

"Gulf states are happy with the current situation. [The] market is well-supplied and prices are reasonable," one Gulf OPEC official said Friday.

Yet recent weeks have provided an abundance of bad news to back the bearish view within the OPEC contingent that would like to see a cut.

Only Friday, markets fell after the Federal Reserve in the U.S.—the world's largest oil consumer—failed to commit to further quantitative easing. And an interest-rate cut in China—the engine of global oil demand growth—raised concerns its economy is slowing more than previously expected.

Days after the OPEC meeting on June 17, Greece is set to elect a new parliament, where opponents of austerity measures could make new headway, further casting a cloud on a euro-zone recovery.

"Demand is not in good shape compared to the last meeting," Iran's Mr. Khatibi said in a recent interview.

It is also unknown exactly how much Iranian oil will leave the market due to international pressure and sanctions.

In April, Iran's production fell to its lowest level in 20 years and exports fell by a quarter from normal shipments, according to independent estimates. But new measures—including a European Union oil embargo and a U.S. ban on oil settlements with Iran's central bank—will hit with their full force in the summer.

That will come just as demand rebounds as refineries under maintenance return online and U.S. motorists hit the road during the driving season.

Most expect the Saudis to ignore Iran's pressure and keep production elevated. "The Saudis will prefer to err on the side of keeping the market well-supplied as Iranian output drops," Greg Priddy, an analyst at U.S. geopolitical advisory Eurasia Group wrote in a note Friday.

That is why many expect OPEC's final decision will maintain the official ceiling at 30 million barrels a day and avoid a meaningful statement on overproduction.

Production is not the sole contentious issue pitting Iranians and Saudis against each other at the meeting. Both countries are fielding a candidate to replace Abdalla Salem el-Badri, the current OPEC secretary-general who is set to leave at the end of the year.

Other members say the most likely winner will be a compromise candidate from a country like Iraq or Ecuador.