It is a truth universally acknowledged that the west’s oil embargo against Iran will bring that country to its knees. Among other related truths: Iran’s economy derives much of its revenue from oil sales; oil sanctions will cripple Iran; all Iran’s previous customers will abandon it seeing the justice in our cause; Iran will not be able to replace those customers with others; with unsold inventory, masses clamoring for food, and unable to fund it’s military and nuclear research programs, Iran will have no choice but to cry “Uncle.”
In case you detected a note of irony in my reference to Jane Austen above, let’s examine a few of the premises. Will Iran’s oil customers abandon it? So far Russia And China won’t. Yes, we’ve seen articles in the NY Times confirming that Chinese state buyers are searching for alternate fuel sources in case Iran’s oil spigot closes. But this is merely doing due diligence in order to anticipate China’s possible loss of Iranian oil. I see no fundamental change in China’s support for Iran.
Now, the Times adds a new ingredient to the dish. It reports that India is not only buying Iranian oil, but it has become Iran’s largest customer and plans to continue to be. It makes no promise that it will honor the oil embargo:
India’s determination to continue buying Iranian oil, despite sanctions and growing political pressure from the United States and Europe, has frustrated officials in Washington at a time when the forward momentum in the United States-India relationship has slowed…
The situation was exacerbated last week by news reports that India had become Iran’s top oil customer, while an Indian official announced plans to send a trade delegation to Tehran. In New Delhi, diplomats and analysts say India’s purchasing of Iranian oil is a matter of economic necessity, given its dependence on imported oil.
…Indian officials…caution against turning issues like Iran into diplomatic litmus tests…“This can’t be a test of our friendship,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States. “Washington must realize that we are in a neighborhood where Iran is a factor.”
Alas, that is precisely what the U.S. will likely refuse to do. In this sense, the U.S. approach to Iran, though marginally more pragmatic than Israel’s delusional one, is still based on mirages and faulty premises. The U.S. believes that it can orchestrate a universal international cold shoulder to Iranian oil and that this in turn will force the Ayatollahs to come to their senses and give up their nukes (or their so-called desire to have them).
Let’s pour some bracing cold water on those assumptions: three of the world’s larger economies which use lots of oil are saying “Not so fast” to our gangbusters approach. What will we do when we find that there are leaks in this magnificent boat we’re building? Will we physically blockade Iran, closing the Strait of Hormuz and thereby forcing Iran to stop oil shipments? If we do this, think back to how Israel reacted when Egypt blockaded the Strait of Tiran. It was a causus belli and that’s one of the reasons Israel offered for initiating the 1967 War. In Iran’s case, it would be far more justified in going to war because Tiran had no major trade importance for Israel, while Hormuz is critical for Iran.
And if we seal of Hormuz, Iran is likely to figure out other ways to export oil. It has thousands of miles of borders with multiple countries. Though it is much more efficient to export oil by tanker and water than by land, Iran might be able to maintain a semblance of oil trade by land. If the price of oil skyrockets, then such a method of shipment would become even more effective.
Everything we’re doing now is designed to create a soft landing when we supposedly seal Iran off from its customers. The price of oil will remain stable because we will have arranged for alternate source of oil for all of Iran’s current customers. But what if it doesn’t happen? What if we can’t find those alternate sources? What if Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Libya can’t fill the gap? What if the oil price goes through the roof? What if the “coalition of the willing” becomes less willing to support the embargo? What then?
In science, we learn that the simplest answer to a problem is more likely true than a more complex answer since the more parts there are the more likely one of them could prove wrong. In politics, the converse is also true: the more complicated a policy is the more likely it will be to fail. The west’s approach to its conflict with Iran is tremendously complex and based on multiple assumptions, any one of which can be wrong. If the path we choose is to bomb Iran, it will likely make Iran more likely to get a nuclear weapon. If we don’t bomb Iran and rely on sanctions like an oil embargo, but the embargo fails, then we’re left holding a bag full of holes. In turn, this will make us look like fools and the Iranians like geniuses (even if they don’t deserve to be).
So the simplest path is the best in this situation. The simplest path is to put all our issues on the table with Iran and for them to put all theirs there as well. Then talk things out and arrive at a similar Grand Bargain to the one then-Preisdent Khatami offered the U.S. in 2003 (and which George Bush spurned). Simple is best. By simple, I don’t mean easy and I don’t mean short. Of course negotiations will hard and take some time. But as Tom Pickering and Bill Luers argued in their recent NY Times op-ed, it’s the only reasonable way and the one most likely to work.
Returning to some of the delusional thinking on which U.S. (and Israeli) policy is based, the Daily Beast publishes a story about the development of Obama’s approach to Iran over the course of his presidency. The authors note that when he came into office his chief spooks begged him not to cancel their covert campaign against Iran’s nuke program. But Obama supposedly genuinely wanted to give a try to diplomacy as a way of resolving conflict with Iran. So what did he do?
In the first days of the administration, deputy CIA Director Steve Kappes and Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, went…to the new president.
Obama listened intently. He understood Cartwright’s concern [for not cancelling the covert operations], and yet his diplomatic strategy hinged on the Iranians believing that American outreach was genuine. The president mulled the question of whether covert activities might compromise his nascent effort to engage with Iran’s leaders. “He was trying to weigh the slowing down of our covert activities—when that meant Iran would be able to reprocess [uranium] faster—against the risk to the outstretched-hand policy,” recalls one adviser. “That was the tricky balance.”
In the end, Obama concluded that he could pursue both—the covert and diplomatic tracks—simultaneously. He told his advisers that a successful campaign to disrupt Iran’s nuclear plans, in fact, would buy more time for diplomacy.
I swear sometimes I think people who should know better take the Iranians for dunces. If you were Ahmadinejad or Khamenei having faced the tortured relationship you had with the U.S., and you came across this sort of duplicitousness what would you think? You’d think just what I think. When you’re president of a superpower you can’t have your cake and eat it. You’ve got to make a choice and stick with it. If you try to have it both ways your interlocutor will see through you in a heartbeat. The Iranians weren’t wrong to respond as skeptically as they did to Obama. He was dicking them (pardon my language but Obama’s approach annoys the hell out of me and warrants it) around and they knew it.
Rhetoric like this, even if you take into account that it’s offered by an overtly Israel advocate like Eli Lake and therefore needs to be regarded with skepticism, also chills the bones:
Israeli officials now insist that Obama has undergone what they regard as a positive evolution in his views on Iran. “The rhetoric from the United States today is different from what it was a year ago,” says an Israeli in Netanyahu’s inner circle. “Today, when you listen to Obama … you get the feeling the Americans are ready to attack if worse comes to worst.” Another official privy to discussions on Iran at the highest levels in Israel says, “It becomes clearer and clearer that America is on the course of a growing conflict, growing friction, growing risk of a big conflict with Iran.”
You remember what I wrote above about Israel’s delusional approach to Iran? First, no reasonable U.S. analyst believes that Obama is “ready to attack if worst comes to worst.” And even if you count this statement as typical Israeli blowhard rhetoric, there’s no question that the assumptions behind it fuel Israel’s military thinking. In other words, Israeli leaders believe Obama will help them finish off the job they begin, therefore they feel freer to start what they know they can’t finish. Which means that if Israel attacks and Obama doesn’t intend to finish the job then he will have only himself to blame for not sending a stronger signal to Israel.
Alternatively, if the Israelis are right and Obama will come to their aid after they spark what could well become a regional war, then all bets are off. This president will have sent himself, his presidency, and all the rest of us to hell in a handbasket.
Another portion of this article no doubt penned by Lake (there are two other authors as well) argues from an Israeli source that Obama should stop Iran from getting nukes because it will tarnish U.S. power and credibility:
Obama is also thinking more broadly—about a possible nuclear-arms race in the region and the reputation of the United States. One of the senior Israeli officials interviewed for this article says he has heard U.S. counterparts express concern that a failure to stop Iran could lead to an eclipse of American power in the Middle East. “You stand to lose a very wide area of influence that was yours for 60 years,” says the official. “If Iran did [develop nukes] in spite of America, how would Obama look? How would America look?”
Would he or America look any worse than we looked after North Korea, Pakistan or India got nukes? This is one of the more idiotic arguments I’ve heard. The only way in which our prestige will be diminished in this regard is if we bet the house on stopping Iran and fail. And that IS what our policy is rapidly becoming. The more we double down on this bet, the more likely Iran will dig in its heels and insist that it get what it wants. THAT is what will really harm our status in the region and world.
Further, Israeli sources quoted in the article blame Obama for the opacity of Israel’s approach to war with Iran. They claim that because Obama would not promise to go to war against Iran if sanctions fail, that Israel had to decide to go it alone and shut off the intelligence pipeline it had with the U.S. on these matters. So there you have it, the president had the chutzpah to tell the Israelis he wouldn’t commit to war with Iran, which in turn guarantees an Israeli war with Iran.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam