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Youssef M. Ibrahim, Expert on Energy and the Middle East

He is group editor at Energy Intelligence, a company that publishes news and provides data and analysis about international energy issues. Ibrahim is also a senior fellow on the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, Ibrahim was a foreign correspondent for The New York Times, and Tehran Bureau Chief. He also covered energy for The Wall Street Journal.



 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Youssef Ibrahim of Energy Intelligence discusses the
possible ramifications of the Iraq war on oil production in the
Middle East

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the slogans of the anti-war movement is No Blood For Oil. Today we're
going to examine the assumption that war will profit the oil industry and
consider what the industry has to gain and lose. My guest, Youssef Ibrahim,
is the group editor of Energy Intelligence, which provides information and
analysis to the international oil and gas industry, and publishes Petroleum
Intelligence Weekly and Oil Daily. Ibrahim is a former Middle East editor for
The New York Times--he covered the first Gulf War for The Times--and he's
former energy editor of The Wall Street Journal. He was recently a senior
fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Before joining the council, he
worked for the oil company BP Amoco, managing government and media relations
in the US and the Middle East.

Earlier today, I asked Ibrahim how the oil industry is reacting to the slogan,
No Blood For Oil.

Mr. YOUSSEF IBRAHIM (Group Editor, Energy Intelligence): Uncomfortably.
They don't like to be associated with wars to begin with, and they already
have a bad image, and there are quite a few people around the world who have
argued that we are waging this war to get Iraqi oil, so the oil industry, I
think, is keeping a very low profile at the moment, but there is no question
that oil companies from all over the world are circling around Iraq to see
what's in it for them once this conflict is over.

GROSS: Well, potentially, what is in it for the oil industry once the
conflict is over?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, the numbers speak for themselves. Iraq has the
second-largest oil reserves in the world, after Saudi Arabia and, in fact,
this region, the Persian Gulf region, where we are going to war at the moment
contains two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves. Saudi Arabia has
something like 500 billion barrels of oil sitting under it. Iraq probably is
close to that, so we are talking about an awful lot of oil here.

GROSS: Do Western oil companies expect to get access to Iraqi oil?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I think they're counting on it, as a matter of fact. Over the
past 12 years, the Iraqi regime, which is about to tumble, has tried to sign
contracts to entice, has conducted talks and has remained in touch with oil
companies from France, Russia and China. Now it was permitted under the
United Nations sanction system to speak, discuss, even negotiate with these
companies, but none of the contracts could be executed until the sanctions
were lifted; hence, all this argument about the French opposition to the war
being motivated by the French contracts that were signed with Iraq. There may
be something to that.

The other side of this coin, of course, is that now we want the American
companies to have all this Iraqi oil, and the third component in that story,
which is evolving, is how do the Iraqis feel about it?

GROSS: How do the Iraqis feel about it?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I suspect that the Iraqis, no matter who governs Iraq in the
end of the day, the simple-minded idea that we're going to put a servile or
subservient government in there and turn Iraq into a private American gasoline
pumping station is just not going to work out, because it's very simple
really. Oil is the single national resource of Iraq. No matter who runs
Iraq, they have absolutely no interest in pumping oil out of control, bringing
the price down to $5, $6, $7 or $10 a barrel. That does not serve their
interest, and anybody who does this eventually will be overthrown until we
reach a government that, in the end, like all governments that produce oil,
will join OPEC; re-join OPEC in the case of Iraq, of course.

GROSS: President Bush has promised that the oil of Iraq will belong to the
Iraqi people when this war is over. The Bush administration also expects that
Iraqi oil will pay for the reconstruction that is necessary of Iraq after the
war. What is your understanding of the plan that the president has laid out
for Iraqi oil?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, that is not what the president, or at least his main
policy-makers were saying in the beginning. As you recall, people, like the
hard-liners in the Defense Department, including the Defense minister--or
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz, who's his number two, and,
particularly, Richard Perle, who's of the Defense Board, and the conservative
think tanks in Washington--American Heritage Foundation and the American
Enterprise Institute--were openly speaking about seizing Iraqi oil fields and
operating them.

After a while, when that kind of talk resonated very, very poorly with other
countries, not only the countries that were negotiating with Iraq over oil but
other countries that had oil in the region, I think directives went out from
the White House to say, `Stop talking this way,' and the spinning went in
another direction. Now the spinning is that the oil of Iraq belongs to the
people of Iraq but, of course, we are planning to put a kind of puppet Iraqi
government in there, and then hopefully we'll ask them to do what we want.

Basically, I don't think this is going to work, for a number of reasons. One,
the most important reason, really, is the condition of the Iraqi oil industry
at the moment can only be described as lamentable. It is running on empty, so
to speak. The system has been deprived of spare parts for 12 years because of
the sanctions, and it is a miracle that the Iraqi engineers have made it work,
pumping as much as they can, which is about two million barrels a day. At the
moment, of course, there is no oil coming out of Iraq at all, and we still
have to see how much damage this war will do to the oil fields, in addition to
the damage that was done to the oil fields by their misuse over the past 12

GROSS: I need to ask you here, you sound very cynical about both the oil
industry and the Bush administration's oil agenda in Iraq, but you edit energy
publications, and the readers of these publications are primarily, I'd
imagine, people in the oil industry, and it sounds like a disconnect to me
that you would be so skeptical, yet be writing to an oil industry audience.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, much of my information comes from the oil companies and
the administration and oil policy-making think tanks, plus, of course, oil and
politics are never separated. But there is really no contradiction. What I'm
saying to you is the following. Oil companies do not like to see low oil
prices, and oil-producing countries do not like to see low oil prices so, in
fact, they have a shared interest there. I'm not saying that Iraq will not
pump oil; Iraq will pump oil. What I'm saying is that Iraq, Iran, Saudi
Arabia, Russia, or even Norway are never going to flood the world oil markets
with oil so as to bring the price down. That is not in their interest.

And on the political side, I'm saying no sovereign nation takes orders from
another nation when it comes to its single national oil resource. So we need
the oil, the world needs the oil, and the question is, how to we set the price
of that oil? And what sets the price of oil is demand and supply, which is an
exercise that has a fair dimension of politics in it.

So, basically, even after Iraq becomes a friendly country, it is not going to
raise its production from two million to six million barrels a day, for
example, to begin with, because that will take years and years and billions of
dollars to do, but also because it will continue to cooperate with OPEC
members, of which it is a founding member, as a matter of fact.

There are really no contradictions between what the oil industry wants and
what oil-producing countries want. There may be a contradiction between what
the Bush administration hopes for and what these two other parties hope for.

GROSS: Where would you see that contradiction?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Price, where the price of oil is going to be. We consume so
much oil every day. I mean, we guzzle up 20 million barrels of oil per day in
this country and, of this, we are importing almost half from outside. Our
appetite for oil is seemingly uncontrollable. You know the argument about the
SUV, etc., etc., and, therefore, it has been a policy of the United States for
over 60 years to have a dimension of strategic and logistical control over the
Middle East and the Persian Gulf region, which is the area that has the
cheapest and the largest amount of oil. That has been our policy since that
memorable meeting between King Saud the great and President Roosevelt, if you
recall. And ever since then, whenever somebody, particularly the ex-Soviet
Union, threatened our interests in this region, we moved in to secure them.

I think there is a little bit of this thinking that's still out there. When
we saw that the French and the Russians were being encouraged by this Iraqi
regime, that is about to fall, to set foot in this region and to have a share
of one of the biggest producers, Iraq, I have to be naive not to believe that
this was an element that has pushed us to decide on this campaign.

GROSS: My guest is Youssef Ibrahim, group editor of Energy Intelligence,
which publishes information and analysis for the oil industry. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Youssef Ibrahim, and he's the
group editor of Energy Intelligence, which is a group of energy-related
publications. He's the former Middle East correspondent for The New York
Times, former energy editor of The Wall Street Journal.

The Bush administration, you know, has said that the Iraqi oil will be for the
Iraqi people, and Iraqi oil will pay for the reconstruction that is necessary
after the war. What do you think the Iraqi people will be looking for in
terms of how the oil of their country is used and controlled after the fall of
Saddam Hussein?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, that's a very big bill, you know. Already the damage
that has been done to Iraq by the sanctions--the 12-year-old sanctions--is so
vast, it's not clear that Iraq's oil production in and of itself is enough to
pay the bill for the reconstruction of Iraq. Iraq will need massive amounts
of help in every area in order to reconstruct itself, you know. Its
infrastructure is destroyed, its water pipeline system is destroyed, its
health system is destroyed, its hospital system is destroyed, and yesterday we
bombed the Ministry of Planning. All the ministries and the various
administrative organs of the state are destroyed now.

Reconstruction on that scale is something that the United Nations has
estimated will demand an amount of money between $100 billion and $150
billion. Iraq cannot earn that kind of money by pumping the oil it is now
pumping. It is producing about two million barrels a day, and that's nothing
close to what it needs. So, yes, in principle the oil of Iraq will be used to
reconstruct Iraq and, of course it does belong to the people of Iraq but, in
addition to this, the international community will need to go in there and
create, in effect, a marshal-like plan to repair the immense damage that has
been inflicted on Iraq in the previous war, 12 years of sanctions, and in this

GROSS: Do you think how the United States handles itself in terms of Iraqi
oil will set the tone, in a way, for how the other countries of the region
regard America?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Absolutely. We cannot go around insinuating the French are
acting out of greed and that they are opposing our war in Iraq because they
have their eye on Iraqi oil and then go in there and take over Iraqi oil,
clearly. And there has been, in fact, some discussion of this subject in the
upper reaches of the White House. It is my understanding that some months
ago, Vice President Dick Cheney, who is really running our energy policy
completely, has invited the CEOs of a number of oil companies and the CEOs of
a number of oil service companies, such as Halliburton, which he used to run,
and asked them how they feel about going into Iraq immediately after the war,
and starting to work there and to repair it. And I don't think he got a
satisfactory answer because these companies were a little wary about
committing their shareholders' money into a country like Iraq, which is far
from stable and, furthermore, of course, they were quite concerned about
putting in their own expatriate employees in there until Iraq is secure and

Now we are just in the beginning of this war, and I'm absolutely sure the
military campaign, in itself, will be a success. However, what one is not
sure about is what happens after the war is over, and we have 100,000 American
troops occupying and ruling 22 million or 23 million Iraqis. We are not so
sure if there's not going to be a civil war in Iraq between the various tribal
groups and the various ethnic groups, and whether the place is going indeed to
be stable. I suspect we are going to have a succession of governments before
we settle on a final government, and I suspect the final government will be
probably from the military and probably just another Saddam Hussein, except
he'll be our Saddam Hussein.

This will take time, and during this time, I doubt that any business or any
companies would want to really go in there until they are sure the safety of
their people is guaranteed, and if they make a contract with the government,
that government is going to be in power in order to honor that contract.

GROSS: You know, in response to people who are, like, skeptical of Dick
Cheney and feel like he has special interests in this war, oil-related
interests because of Halliburton, if he was being motivated by special
interest in his former company, why would he have called a meeting with the
representatives of many oil companies to talk with them before the war?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, I think he's not only--I mean, we must not reduce the man
to simply somebody who is looking after the interests of the oil industry.
He's also an ideologue, and somebody who buys into the Paul Wolfowitz theory
that America must impose its values on the rest of the world and, above all,
that American business should dominate. Now he did call the oil companies to
ask them, `When we go in there, we want you guys to come in and just start
working immediately.' I think he did keep in mind the traditional dominance we
have had of that Middle East oil lake, huge sea of oil, and that it was
important, as Iraq is coming up in the world now, as a country free of Saddam
Hussein, that we include it in our stable of oil countries. After all, we
have Saudi Arabia, we have Kuwait, we have the United Arab Emirates, we have
Qatar, we have Oman and we want to make sure we also have the big, big fish,

GROSS: Now are you advising the oil industry in your publications about how
much stability to expect in Iraq in the near future? Are they relying on you
for advice on that?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, our energy publications are, of course, read by not only
the oil companies but also governments, etc., etc. Our job is journalistic,
pure and simple. We tell them what we see, we tell them what we expect, we
give them news analysis and we give them political analysis, and what I'm
telling you is basically what we are writing in our publications. It is
something that they read and it's something that they also seek separately
through their own intelligence. At the same time, we do get a lot of our
information from them as well, so you can think of this as a lot of eyes
looking with a microscope at that area and that situation and at this
evolution of this war. And, of course, all decisions that are made in this
region have to do with oil, and the stability of the region. This is a region
that is now going through truly an earthquake. Nothing will be the same
afterwards. We will look back, I think, in a few years and say that this was
a turning point in history.

GROSS: Youssef Ibrahim is group editor of Energy Intelligence, which
publishes information and analysis for the oil and gas industry. He's a
former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and former energy editor
for The Wall Street Journal. He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with journalist Youssef
Ibrahim. We're talking about Iraqi oil: what's to become of it, who stands
to profit from it and how oil is shaping perceptions of the war. Ibrahim is
group editor of Energy Intelligence, which publishes information and
analysis for the energy industry. He's also a former foreign correspondent
for The New York Times--he reported on the first Gulf War--and is former
energy editor of The Wall Street Journal.

You've talked about how, you know, one of the issues right now is stability in
a country that is a major source of oil. Do you think that OPEC countries,
other countries in the Gulf area, are also concerned about stability in Iraq?
And do you think that some of the governments of the area, no matter what
their public stand might be on this war with Iraq, may privately support it
because, A, they don't like Saddam Hussein and, B, it would bring more
stability to an important oil supplier?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, Terry, you're absolutely right about the second half of
that. Saddam Hussein, since 1990, has been a problem for this region. His
policies have paralyzed this region completely economically and paralyzed it
in terms of geopolitics. It has attracted the attention of the United States
to it in a way that is not appealing to most of these countries. Also, Iraq
is an oil-producing country, and all the countries around it--Iran, Saudi
Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Amman--are also oil-producing
countries. They need a government next door that, A, stops making war against
everybody; that, B, is not under armed attack all the time, as Iraq has been;
and, C, that has a steady oil policy with which they can work, so that they
coordinate their policies together.

I am absolutely certain no one in the region would like Saddam to stay, and
everybody is looking forward to his imminent departure. Now having said that,
it does not mean that everybody is awaiting the Americans with open arms
because everybody is very wary about the American style of this
administration, which is very aggressive, very unilateralist and very
demanding. And they don't necessarily agree with the policies that the Bush
administration has announced, for example, on oil, on Israel, on regional
stability in the area. And particularly they certainly don't like the notion
of regime changes because if Iraq number one and then Iran is number two and
Damascus is number three, everybody's going to start asking themselves, `Who's
next?' So there is a mixture of relief that Saddam will be going and, also,
apprehension that an unpredictable American force is coming.

GROSS: Do you have any inside information about Arab governments that are
actually supporting the Bush administration behind the scenes but publicly
opposing it?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Terry, every single Arab government is supporting and not only
supporting, but giving all kinds of facilities to the American military
operation. Those who are saying it and doing it publicly are only two Arab
countries: Qatar, which has offered itself as the center for the command, and
there's where General Tommy Franks lives or operates out of; and Kuwait,
which, of course, has all the land troops attacking Iraq moving out of there.
The only country that has refused to allow land troops is Turkey and, of
course, Saudi Arabia, but they are both allowing American airplanes to use
their airspace and to use their air bases. Egypt is the same thing; publicly
it is not saying anything because there's so much opposition in the Arab
street and in the Muslim street against this war, but privately they are
cooperating with the United States militarily.

And the reason everybody's doing this is the United States has become a
frightening country. I mean, this administration really keeps scores and
threatens those who do not and will not cooperate with it. And I think all of
these regimes are quite dependent on either financial aid from the United
States of America or military protection from the United States of America.
So the regimes themselves, in order to sustain power, need this American
umbrella, whether it is financial or military. Their people hate the American
presence and, hence, you have this situation where privately they are helping,
but publicly they say nothing.

GROSS: Do you think another reason why some of these countries are helping
privately and publicly saying nothing is that, like we discussed before, they
don't like Saddam Hussein and they want more stability in Iraq?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Oh, on that part, they're very vocal. I mean, every country has
said that Saddam should go. In fact, at some point, the Arab and the Turks
and the Iranians have suggested that the best solution to this crisis is for
Saddam to leave Iraq. But Saddam Hussein and his family have refused to leave
Iraq. So the fact that nobody in this region likes Saddam is a public affair.
The fact that they are cooperating with the United States to remove him is
what they don't like to talk about too much.

GROSS: My guest is Youssef Ibrahim, group editor of Energy Intelligence,
which publishes information and analysis for the oil industry. We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Youssef Ibrahim. He's the
group editor of Energy Intelligence, which publishes a group of energy-related
publications. He's a former Middle East correspondent for The New York Times,
a former energy editor for The Wall Street Journal.

How do you think the oil industry is reacting to the unpopularity of America
right now?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, Terry, I think they are reacting with great apprehension,
not only for psychological reasons. This is costing money. Do you know, for
example, that as we are speaking now, every oil company working in any Muslim
country has asked all the dependents of their expatriates to leave. That
costs a lot of money when you have three kids in school, say, in Jakarta or in
Pakistan or in Riyadh or in Dubayy or in Abu Dhabi. And you have to remove
them and bring them back, say, to England or to America. Now that costs each
of these companies a lot of money.

They're also quite worried about the safety of their expatriates. As you have
been reading in the past few weeks, oil workers and Americans and British
expatriates are being shot here and there. In Kuwait, two Americans were shot
by Kuwaiti policemen. In Yemen two days ago, three days ago, two American--or
a Canadian and an American oil engineers working for the Hunt Oil Company
were shot. So we are beginning to see a phenomenon. I know the manager of
one of the largest oil companies in the world in Saudi Arabia who now has a
special security person who has to examine his car for 25 minutes every
morning before he turns the ignition because some bombs have been planted in
some cars. About four or five British executives, for some reason, were shot
and killed in Saudi Arabia.

In other words, this is for real. And it also causes a lot of stress. All
these expatriates are living now alone away from their family. So what we are
talking about here is a lot of readjustment.

GROSS: Well, since things have gotten so dangerous for oil workers, are there
certain policies or positions that the oil industry is trying to lobby for in
the United States?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I would think that the oil industry, but not only the oil
industry. I'm beginning to see--even before I joined Energy Intelligence, I
was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I was beginning
to see a lot of businesses becoming very interested in the way this
administration conducts its international policy. You're beginning to hear
from the Morgan Stanleys, from the Merrill Lynches, from the JP Morgans, from
IBM, from somebody like George Soros, who's on television all the time, as you
noticed, objecting to the policies of this administration because it is
threatening his business. It is threatening his ability to conduct business,
which is global by nature.

So I think, for the first time, we are seeing the business community taking a
step away from a Republican administration. That is not usually, as you can
imagine, Terry, the mode. I mean, we always assume that business and the
Republican Party are very close to one another. I think a lot of big
businesses, now that we have become a global economy, are beginning to see
that their interests are not necessarily served by the policies, the very
aggressive unilateralist policies, of this administration, such as canceling
the Kyoto agreement, canceling all the disarmament agreements with the
Russians. The upcoming confrontation with North Korea is upsetting all of the
Asian businesses. Anybody who has--and Asia is big business. And, of course,
there is China, which is the giant consuming nation that is looming out there,
with whom everybody would like to do business and which is objecting to our
policies as well.

So politics and oil and business are all coming together, but this time not
necessarily in the usual ways we had assumed in the past; that they're all
approve of a Republican administration.

GROSS: You have spent most of your career as a journalist, but there was a
period where you worked as the vice president of media for a big oil company,
and you managed relations with the United States and the Middle East. Did you
learn things or did you see things any differently from the perspective of
working within the oil industry than you'd seen them as a journalist?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Yes. It's like when you're a journalist, you are looking at
these gigantic oil companies as huge fortresses, and you're always trying to
climb their walls or assault them or penetrate them or get to their secrets.
And you always assume that they have a lot of power. And it's a very
interesting transition to make.

Albeit too briefly, I was a senior vice president of, indeed, a major oil
company, but I did a lot of work with this company's business in the Middle
East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, Iran and these places. And so once you're
inside the fortress, it is absolutely amazing to appreciate that everything
you suspected when you were a journalist is actually true: that they do have
an awful lot of power; that they do have considerable access to the people in
power, be it Tony Blair, prime minister of England, or George Bush or Bill
Clinton or Putin. And the Russian oligarches, who run the Russian oil
industry, can meet with the Russian president with one phone call. And that's
a lot of power. And, of course, you've got to consider that these big oil
companies--that the budgets or the revenues of ExxonMobil alone is equivalent
to perhaps half the revenue of all of Africa.

So to put things in perspective, these are giant instruments of industry, but
they're also, by their sheer weight, big political players. And they have big
interests. And the reason Washington, DC, is crawling--and I mean literally
crawling--with lobbyists who are paid hundreds of thousands of dollars is that
all these big companies, be they oil or other than oil, have significant
interests that need to--and need the attention and the ear of the politicians:
the congressmen, the senators and above, all the White House.

GROSS: Were you ever in the position of having to represent an oil company
policy that you thought was a very bad or dangerous or oppressive policy?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I think that's when you quit. I said it was too brief, two

GROSS: Is that why you quit?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Let's say that journalistic ethics and corporate ethics do not
really get along.

GROSS: You grew up in Egypt. You went to American University in Cairo. What
did `America' mean when you were a young man and going to the American
University? What did it mean to you?

Mr. IBRAHIM: A wonderful dream, nirvana, the place you want to get to. I
used to walk out of the American University in Cairo and walk over to the John
F. Kennedy Library, which was right next door in the American Embassy, and
read this newspaper called The New York Times that I was becoming familiar
with. And there was this fellow called James Reston I liked to read a lot.
And, I don't know, by the time I was 20, I decided, `This is it. I'm going to
be a journalist, and I'm actually going to work for The New York Times.'

And some dreams come true. I actually came to this country and went to
Columbia University and got out of Columbia and joined The Times as a copyboy,
which means your job, among other things, was to go get frankfurters across
the street for the reporters at midnight. But you learn a lot and you move
up, and eventually I became a reporter and foreign correspondent for the

But you asked the question about America, and it's an important question, the
question you asked, Terry, because the America that I came to, the people like
Brzezinski, Kissinger--here in New York, we have 40,000 Muslim taxi drivers
who are in America--is the kind of America that is changing now. I mean, what
appeals to all of us immigrants is--it's a country of immigrants, after
all--is the values America stands for: the complete separation of church and
state; the total preservation of your civil rights; your absolute freedom of
expression, to say, to think what you want and to be free; and equal

I think this--I did vote for President Bush, and I now regret that decision
because I think this particular administration and John Ashcroft, our attorney
general, are using 9/11 to actually reverse a lot of the civil right gains
that we have made. And in the process, what they are doing is making America,
the America that everybody love, not so lovable.

GROSS: My guest is Youssef Ibrahim, group editor of Energy Intelligence, which
publishes information and analysis for the oil industry. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Youssef Ibrahim, group editor of Energy Intelligence, which
publishes information and analysis for the oil and gas industry. He's a
former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, former energy editor of
The Wall Street Journal, former senior fellow at the Council on Foreign
Relations and a former oil company vice president.

Next week you'll be leaving for Iran.

Mr. IBRAHIM: And Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. From what perspective will you be covering the war?

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, some of it is sentimental. I've never missed a Gulf War
as a correspondent. I covered the first Iraq-Iran War, and I covered the
Beirut civil war, and I covered the Marines over there, and I covered the
second Gulf War. And I don't want to miss this war. I mean, I want to be
there when it happens. But, objectively speaking, this is a historical
moment, as I said. We will look back at it and say history was made, and
nothing after will be as things were before. And you almost have an
obligation as a journalist, as an observer of the region, as a commentator, as
a political analyst, to be there, to be close to where it happens, to see what
is going to happen, to document it, hopefully even to write a book about it.

GROSS: Why Iran and Saudi Arabia?

Mr. IBRAHIM: I think Iran started everything. I started my career in Iran.
It was my first job as a foreign correspondent. I was dispatched by the
then-executive editor of The New York Times, Abe Rosenthal, to Iran as a young
foreign correspondent six months before the Iranian revolution. It was a
quiet spot. It was a place where they would put somebody they just want to
look at. So I got lucky and I landed there, and it was the revolution of the
last century, the second revolution. The first was the Bolshevik. The second
was the Iranian revolution. And it was a genuine revolution. This is a
revolution where five, six, seven million people were in the streets every
day, day after day, week after week, demanding a change of regime. And the
army was shooting and killing 200, 300 people every night.

And it changed. This was their first regime change, actually, we had in this
region, and the change was very significant. What Iran did is an ayatollah,
religious man, came and said that it is OK, it is a religious duty in fact, to
politically change the regime. He declared the regime to be against Islam
and, hence, the whole concept of Islamic political fundamentalist was born in
Iran; therefore, Iran is, was and continues to be a major force in shaping the
politics of the region. After this, we saw, of course, the emergence of many
an Islamic political movements. We saw them in Israel--Hamas. We saw them in
Lebanon--Hezbollah. We saw them as far away as in Pakistan and in Indonesia.
And in many ways, you can go back and say this was the work of Ayatollah
Ruhollah Khomeini, who is the leader of the Iranian revolution; therefore,
Iran is very important.

Saudi Arabia is very important because it is the place that has--it is the
other pole of Islamic fundamentalism. It is the country that has remained a
very close ally of the United States while, in the same time, sitting one of
the most conservative Islamic regimes in the world. In some ways, the Iranian
Islamic regime is much more revolutionary, dynamic, encourages debate within
it. The Sunni Wahabi Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia discourages debate
completely and discourages independent thinking and simply discourages
movement. It is very static.

And, in many ways, we are dabbling, we are entering in this region to change
all this, to try and establish a separation of church and state. I think it
is a historical development, a truly momentous challenge. And one would want
to be there to watch it.

GROSS: You certainly have your criticisms of the American government now.
But what do you say when you're in the Gulf or you're in the Middle East and
you're confronted with really outlandish conspiracy theories about the United

Mr. IBRAHIM: Well, what I say--I also have my criticisms of many of these
regimes were discussing. I mean, after all, the reason I left Egypt and came
here 30 years ago is that I wanted to live in a free country. I did not want
to have my phones tapped, which they were. I did not want to grow up in a
place where there was no freedom of expression, where if--the dream I had was
to be a journalist. I wanted to work for a place where I could write what I
want. I think the fact that these countries are all run by dictatorships of
one kind or another, that they have confiscated the civil rights of their
citizens; that they have allowed education to slip by, so that people are
graduating from schools without any decent education, and they cannot find
jobs; that they have mismanaged their economies; that corruption is rampant is
all very legitimate criticism.

And there is a side of me, while I'm critical of the United States' war with
Iraq, that says, `Hey, maybe this war is good. Maybe this war will just make
the whole area implode, and maybe it is time for this area to implode.'
Certainly it is time for reforms. And if governments would not implement
these reforms themselves, then let their boiling streets, so to speak, force
it upon them.

GROSS: Well, Youssef Ibrahim, I wish you safe travels, and I thank you very
much for talking with us.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Thank you.

GROSS: Youssef Ibrahim is group editor of Energy Intelligence, which
publishes information and analysis for the oil and gas industry. He's a
former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and former energy editor
for The Wall Street Journal.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording by pianist Marian McPartland, the host of NPR's
program Piano Jazz. She turned 85 today. We wish her a happy birthday.

(Soundbite of McPartland performance)

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