BAGHDAD, Jan. 29 (UPI) -- Hussein Shahristani, Iraq's energy chief, says Baghdad is working with Iran to boost oil exports, a move by these two Shiite-majority powers that could lead to a major challenge of Sunni Saudi Arabia and its domination of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
Shahristani, Iraq's deputy prime minister for energy, told a conference Tuesday at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, a London think tank: "We feel the world needs to be assured of fuel for economic growth."
The Daily Telegraph of London reported he disclosed Iraq is collaborating with Iran, its traditional Arab enemy until the Americans toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, to help it attract investment ahead of the possible lifting of U.S.-led sanctions as Tehran moves toward detente with the West.
International oil companies are reported to be lining up to secure big contracts with Iran to rebuild its long-underfunded energy industry, an endeavor that could cost as much as $200 billion.
"Iran has been in touch with us," Shahristani said. "They want to share our contracts model and experience" in opening up to international oil companies for investment, expertise and access to advanced technology as Iraq has done since 2003.
Iraq, heavily dependent on its oil exports, currently produces about 3 million barrels per day, with exports of about 2.2 million bpd.
Shahristani, who as oil minister was the architect of Iraq's drive to rebuild its dilapidated energy industry following Saddam's ouster, says Baghdad aims to triple production to 9 million bpd by 2020.
That's a step down from its earlier target of 10 million to 12 million bpd by 2017, a level energy insiders dismissed as wildly ambitious and beyond Iraq's capabilities.
But even the scaled-down target is considered beyond reach within the stated time frame, and for the same reasons: bureaucratic bungling, infrastructure delays and a worsening security crisis.
On the Iranian side, Tehran appears to be moving toward a resolution with the United States and its allies related to its contentious nuclear program, which would lead to the easing and possible lifting of sanctions that have crippled Iran's oil production.
But its energy industry has long been in poor shape and is in dire need of massive investment that will have to come from foreign oil companies, a process that will likely take years to have an impact.
Iran has seen its oil exports cut in half because of sanctions, falling from 2.5 million bpd in June 2011 to 1.2 million bpd in September 2013, the International Energy Agency in Paris reports.
That has cost Tehran an estimated $80 billion in oil revenues since 2012. Now it wants to get back to its pre-sanctions level of 4.2 million bpd, and then boost that to 6 million bpd.
At OPEC's annual meeting in December, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, called on Riyadh, which has been making billions by covering the loss of Iranian and Libyan production over the last couple of years, to cut back its production to accommodate Tehran.
Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a potentially explosive intelligence war with Iran, is unlikely to help the Islamic republic willingly. It's been producing a record 10 million bpd, well above its long-observed level of 8 million bpd.
As the only swing producer, this has enhanced its control of the purse strings on global oil prices and so, all things considered, it's not expected to relinquish that without a struggle, particularly as it will have to contend with growing U.S. shale oil production, now running at an estimated 8 million bpd.
The shale challenge aside, the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor observes that "in the long term, Iran and Iraq's production is the key issue" in OPEC remaining a cohesive force in the global energy industry.
"Should Iran and Iraq together boost production to a reasonable achievable level of 11 million bpd by 2020 that would represent an increase of 5 million to 6 million bpd above present levels," it said.
"OPEC's export quotas have already been a source of tension among its members, but producers have always found ways to skirt around them. That may no longer be possible."