In serious contention for Dumbest Washington Consensus for September is the idea of cutting off Iran’s gas imports to pressure Iran to stop enriching uranium. A majority of Representatives and Senators have signed on to legislation that seeks to block Iran’s gas imports, a top legislative priority for the so-called "Israel Lobby." But it’s a stupid idea. Let us count the ways.
One: there is no indication that Russia and China will go along with it. Even Europe is split, Reuters reports. Turkey is also likely to be unenthusiastic – a country that has good relations with Iran, has a long border with Iran, and is currently on the UN Security Council. A U.S.-sponsored gas embargo on Iran isn’t likely to have much impact if Russia, China, Turkey and half of Europe aren’t cooperating – after all, it’s not the U.S. that’s exporting gas to Iran – unless it is imposed by force.
Two: Iran has threatened to retaliate against a U.S.-sponsored gas embargo by stopping its oil exports to the West. There is a historical precedent that ought to give Americans and Britons some pause: when Britain wanted to punish the democratically elected Mossadegh government for nationalizing Iran’s oil, Britain imposed an embargo on Iranian oil exports, enforced by the British Navy. Fine, Mossadegh said, we don’t care. Let it stay in the ground. When the embargo failed, the British tried to overthrow Mossadegh in a coup. When that failed, the British asked the U.S. to intervene, and the CIA and British intelligence overthrew Mossadegh. How does returning to the British colonialism script for Iran fit in with the whole outreach to the Muslim world thing?
Three: Iranian retaliation could have a significant effect on gas prices in the U.S. Here’s a speculative, back-of-the-envelope estimate: suppose that Iranian oil production is 3% of world supply, and the demand elasticity of oil is 10%. If Iranian oil were removed from the world market, gas prices in the U.S. might go up 30%. And that’s just counting Iranian oil. About a fifth of world supply passes through the Strait of Hormuz – about seven times Iran’s exports alone. If that supply were significantly disrupted by conflict stemming from an attempt to enforce a gas embargo on Iran, gas prices in the U.S. could easily return to $4 a gallon. It seems the Obama Administration isn’t eager to deal with the political fallout from that. An Israeli official told Reuters that U.S. policymakers were concerned Iran’s response could have implications for global oil markets. If you think the teabagger right wing in the U.S. is nuts now, wait until they can blame $4 a gallon gas on an Obama Iran gas embargo demanded by the Israel Lobby.
Four: An embargo is an act of war. If we’re going to declare war on Iran because Israel doesn’t want Iran to enrich uranium, let’s be honest about it.
Five: If it’s true that it’s not actually feasible to cut off Iran’s gas imports, what is the point of waiving this threat around? I thought "saber-rattling" was one of the reasons we were against the other guy.
Six: If you want to have effective international sanctions on Iran to bring about meaningful negotiations, they should be organized around an internationally legitimate goal. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is an internationally legitimate goal – Iran has an international treaty obligation not to acquire nuclear weapons. Preventing Iran from having the capacity to enrich uranium is not an internationally legitimate goal. When Secretary of State Clinton told "Meet the Press," addressing Iran, "You do not have the right to have the full enrichment and reprocessing cycle under your control," the New York Times reported this as:
[Secretary Clinton] ruled out explicitly the possibility that the Obama administration would allow Iran to produce its own nuclear fuel, even under intense international inspection.
If it truly is the position of the Obama Administration that there is no way that negotiations can lead to U.S. acceptance of Iran’s control of the nuclear fuel cycle, even under "intense international inspection," then the Obama Administration’s offer of negotiations is not as serious as has been claimed, because there is a strong national consensus in Iran – ask Mr. Mousavi what he thinks about this – that Iran has the right to control the nuclear fuel cycle.
Last: if anyone in the U.S. really cares about the fate of the political opposition in Iran, as opposed to simply seeing it as a temporarily useful tool for attacking the Iranian government, imposing a gas embargo on the country as punishment for enriching uranium is a surefire way to kick the Iranian political opposition in the stomach. What is Mr. Mousavi supposed to say, when reporters ask him what his position is on the gas embargo, as they surely will? If he says he supports the embargo, he may be politically toast in Iran: every bad thing that happens to Iranians as a result of the embargo will be blamed on Mousavi by the Iranian government. If he says he is against it, then he’s saying that the signature Iran policy of the West is a policy to attack Iranian civilians; that’s going to reinforce the government’s case that Iran doesn’t have the luxury for democracy and human rights because it’s under external threat. The more such an embargo bites, the more the dynamic of Iranian politics would be: who hates the U.S. the most? I thought that was the dynamic that we were trying to get away from.
When you read down in the press reports, Israeli officials often concede that their "fear" about Iran isn’t the prospect that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons and nuke Tel Aviv. It’s that if Iran has "breakout capacity" – the theoretical ability, in a crisis, to get on a fast track of six months to a year to acquiring a nuclear weapon – that will increase Iran’s influence at the expense of Israel in the proxy conflicts of the region.
But there’s a cheaper, easier and much less dangerous approach – not to mention much more socially beneficial for the concerned civilians – to reducing Iran’s influence in the region’s proxy conflicts: resolve, ameliorate, or scale down the proxy conflicts.
Lebanon was the arena of bitter proxy conflict between U.S. allies and Iran/Syria allies until there was a national accord that included all the players, and all their patrons. There’s still conflict, of course, but the threat of large-scale violence seems to be mostly off the table now. The budding rapprochement with Syria is likely to scale down this proxy conflict still further: Lebanon’s political split is being redrawn by the end to Syria’s isolation by many Western governments and rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Syria, whose rivalry has been seen at the heart of Lebanon’s turmoil, Reuters reports. Iran was regularly accused in the U.S. press of playing a destructive role in Afghanistan, until the U.S. and Iran formally renewed their co-operation in Afghanistan. Since then, press reports complaining about what Iran is doing in Afghanistan seem to have largely disappeared. I haven’t seen any press reports recently about how the U.S.-Iran cooperation in Afghanistan is going, but my tendency is to assume that if we’re not hearing about it, it must be going ok.
If the U.S. would fully accept a Palestinian national unity government, and Hamas and Fatah would reconcile, Iran’s influence in the Israel/Palestine conflict would be very significantly reduced. Hamas has already accepted that Fatah can negotiate a two-state solution with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. There’s no need for a Hamas handshake on the White House lawn; the U.S. just has to agree to fully support Palestinian reconciliation. Iran, as part of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, is an official endorser of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. If that proposal is allowed to succeed – full peace with Israel in exchange for full withdrawal from the territories occupied by Israel in 1967 (in practice, with any amendment to which the Palestinians agree) there is no room politically for Iran to make any trouble on the Israel-Palestine issue.
In Iraq, Iran’s influence is a fact of life. But it’s hard to see why Iran’s influence in Iraq is intrinsically especially pernicious – another thing Iran and the U.S. have in common, unlike much of the region, is being best friends with the Iraqi government. Iran intervened with the Sadr movement to defuse the military confrontations between the Iraqi government and Sadrist militias in Basra and Sadr City, and the end result was to dramatically strengthen the Iraqi government. Today the Sadrists are negotiating with the Iraqi government party to resume their political alliance. The Bush Administration was outraged that Iran was agitating for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but that withdrawal is now official U.S. government policy, enshrined in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement.
In short – there is another path to reducing Iran’s influence in proxy conflicts than a quixotic crusade to ban Iran’s gas imports, a path that is more feasible, less costly, less dangerous, and more righteous.