By the time this column appears the average price of a barrel of crude oil may well have reached the hitherto mythical level of $100.
Even a year ago, analysts brandished the prospect of $100 oil as the ultimate warning that the world was heading for the rocks.
Today however, the typical reaction to the news is one big yawn. While last year's anxiety was not justified, we should not assume that today's nonchalance is.
Ever since oil was promoted as a measure of global economic health in the 1950s, experts have assumed that crude prices rise because of bad news such as war, revolution or political crises in major countries.
History records major but temporary price rises in 1951, as a result of the nationalisation of Iranian oil, in 1967 and 1973 as a result of the Arab-Israeli wars, in 1980 as a result of the Iran-Iraq war, and in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait.
It is, therefore, no surprise that most analysts see the current price hike, up to and perhaps above the $100 mark as a reaction to the growing noises about war between Iran and the United States. However, the fact is that oil prices are as likely to rise because of good news such as strong economic growth by leading economies. Bad news could produce a temporary hike in prices, but only good news could sustain their steady rise for an appreciable length of time.
Discovering the reason for price increases is not a merely academic exercise. If the current trend is prompted by the war talk over Iran, then prudence dictates the adoption of diplomatic measures to reduce tension and promote dialogue between Tehran and Washington.
If, on the other hand, oil prices are rising because of increased global demand one needs to either moderate demand or find new sources of supply.
That war talk is not the key reason behind current trends in oil prices is not hard to demonstrate. Even if there were an actual war between Iran and the US, neither would have an interest in cutting off the flow of oil. The mullahs may talk about it but would always remember that Iran's oil accounts for 70 per cent of the national budget.
Occasionally, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad talks of closing the Strait of Hormuz. However, the fact remains that his administration has built up enough foreign currency reserves to finance no more than 12 weeks of imports.
Paradoxically, it may be the Americans who might be tempted to shut the Strait to Iranian oil exports, at least long enough to bankrupt the Islamic Republic. Such a move might push oil prices higher, perhaps even to $200 a barrel.
That would benefit Washington's regional allies, notably Iraq which, thanks to rising oil prices, has already built a foreign currency cushion of around $30 billion. Other US allies such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states would also benefit from the short-term windfall.
In exchange, they would use their additional income to invest in the US or increase their purchases of American weapons. (Recent oil price rises have enabled the GCC members to place orders worth $50 billion for weapons from the US and Great Britain.)
The big losers in a slowdown in the flow of oil and an increase in crude prices would be India, China, Japan and the European Union that depend on the Middle East for some 60 per cent of their imports. By contrast, the US dependency on the region's oil has fallen to around 19 per cent. The only major regional oil exporter to the US is Saudi Arabia, and that, largely, to supply the refineries it owns in the US.
The current upward trend of prices is prompted by good rather than bad news. It reflects confidence in the global economy's capacity to continue producing unprecedented growth rates. Even the threat of inflation, produced by what economists call "leapfrogging", is less serious than a generation ago. The quadrupling of crude prices in the past four years has not produced the kind of inflationary trends unleashed in the 1970s.
Some experts assume that we have entered a period of high prices until the world runs out of oil in two or three decades. They hope that the prospect of a world without oil would encourage greater investment in energy saving technology and alternative energies in general. However, there is no evidence to back such a projection.
Contrary to what Al Gore is trying to peddle through the global talk circuit, the era of oil may not be over. The first time that "the end of oil" was presented as imminent was in the 1970s when the so-called Brandt Commission of "wise men", headed by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, predicted that the world would run out of oil by 2000. That did not happen. Most experts now fix "end of oil" deadline at 2030.
The truth, however, is that no one knows when, or whether, the world will run out of oil because no one knows how much oil there is in our planet.
Six years ago Saudi Arabia discovered giant oil reserves in the Shibam depression in the vast desert known as The Empty Quarter. According to estimates the new fields could produce up to 2.2 million barrels a day for another 50 years. Iraq is also sitting on an ocean of oil. As for Iran, less than 10 per cent of its territory has so far been prospected for oil. Given adequate investment and technological modernisation, Iran could more than double its present production levels to eight million barrels a day, a capacity it had in the early 1970s.
In 1970 the Shah of Iran called oil "a noble product" and claimed that it was "a shame and a pity to burn it in cars". At that time oil prices hovered around $11 per barrel. In real purchasing power, today's oil price is cheaper than it was then. Nevertheless, and whether or not we have endless supplies of oil, it is still a dumb thing to burn it in our cars.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian writer based in Europe.