Iran sits on one-tenth of the world's known oil supplies but is using so much energy these days it may start rationing gasoline as soon as next month.
As the country has grown wealthier selling oil and gas, Iranians have themselves become large consumers of energy. Government subsidies, which make energy nearly free to consumers and businesses, stoke the demand further. At the same time, a combination of Western sanctions and Iranian policies has discouraged foreign investment in oil fields, causing production to stagnate. The result: Iran's oil exports could dry up in as little as a decade, according to some who have studied the situation. That's a looming disaster for Iran, which derives about 85% of its export income from the sale of oil.
Once seen as little more than a giant petrol station to the world, Middle Eastern oil suppliers are now becoming some of the largest consumers of energy anywhere. They are attempting to diversify their economies, often by encouraging energy-thirsty industries such as refineries and processing of metals like aluminum. Meanwhile, record numbers of young people are growing up and establishing households. Already, the Middle East and North Africa's population of some 300 million consumes almost as much oil as 1.2 billion Chinese.
Iran, where a huge population bulge is reaching adulthood, is confronting the export crunch earlier and more acutely than others. Iran already consumes more oil than all but 15 other countries on earth, according to the International Energy Agency, which monitors the world energy market. In 1995, Iranians used the equivalent of 34% of the oil they pumped from the ground, exporting the rest. Last year they used 40%.
Iran will also have to keep ahead of Iranians' own thirst for gas and oil, which is growing at a double-digit pace. So far, it is losing the race.
Much of the problem is waste. A recent study by a parliamentary committee said that 18.5% of the country's electricity is lost before it even reaches consumers, due to rickety infrastructure, corruption and mismanagement.
... subsidies make energy practically free in Iran, discouraging any serious energy conservation. Gasoline, for example, costs about 40 cents a gallon at the pump. That's encouraged an explosion of use, as Iranians add new cars while continuing to use fuel-guzzling old models. It has also encouraged a brisk smuggling trade as Iranians buy millions of gallons of fuel at the subsidized price and truck them into neighboring Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan and Iraq for sale at market rates.