Iran From 10,000 Feet

Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could.

This column appears in the February 2nd, 2012 edition of the Long Island Press.

Trunk to tail the elephants circle the ring while the four remaining clowns in the circus vamp, weep and honk their noses to the delight of the audience. The train travels from Iowa to New Hampshire, and then makes its way down the coast to Florida where the most recent performance went off without a hitch. With dozens more appearances planned for the upcoming weeks, the greatest show on Earth promises to keep the masses entertained for months to come.

Outside the alternate reality that is the American election season, however, a gathering storm is rapidly approaching, threatening to rip the stakes from the ground and bring the tent down upon all of us.

The deadliest game of chicken in history is being played in dark alleys with no headlights. Two cars careen toward each other, Iran in one and Israel in the other, while the world huddles close to see which one of them blinks first. But we are all more than spectators in this deadly contest, we are participants. The ever-expanding concentric circles of conflict that began with the Mossad and Hezbollah, extended to neighboring nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Syria, now encapsulate the United States, Europe, Russia and China.

In short, the stage is set for World War III. Damn, those Mayans were good!

Because the economy is still in the center ring, however, it’s the primary show the audience focuses on. We can see shadowy figures moving about in the periphery. We know they’re there, but our attention is diverted for the moment. Humanity be damned, it’s still the economy, stupid. It’s why every pronouncement of war, every threat to prevent a nuclear Iran, includes references to the disruption of the global oil supply.

But exactly how do you quantify the potential ramifications of a complete breakdown in both production and supply of oil in the Middle East, and more specifically Iran? The second oil shock of the 1970s, beginning with an Iranian oil-workers’ strike in 1978 and continuing through the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, is a useful portent of financial catastrophe. This two-year flare-up resulted in skyrocketing oil prices that reached $38 per barrel in 1980. Adjusted for today’s dollars, that’s around $90 per barrel.

Think about that for a moment. If the equivalent figure of $90 today thrust the global markets into utter chaos and drove the world deeper into recession in 1980, what effect would a new shock today have on the global economy, considering oil is consistently trading around $100 per barrel today? Obama doesn’t need to ask Jimmy Carter how that would work out.

This is why Europe and America have been rallying support to increase economic sanctions on Iran while Israel continues its effective covert assault on the power structure in Tehran. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner recently visited China to ask for their participation in a global embargo on trading with Iran. The problem there, of course, is that China receives approximately 10 percent of its oil from Iran—a figure projected to grow steadily over the next couple of decades as China attempts to break the coal habit. Geithner’s reception was as chilly as it was when he asked the Chinese to adjust their undervalued currency in an effort to stabilize the balance of trade between our nations. Add to the mix that China has no moral or political allegiance to Israel, and it’s easy to understand why Geithner would have had better luck talking to the Great Wall of China than its ruling class.

The political calculus in Washington is as complicated as ever. Obama has been able to walk the tightrope between America’s hawks and isolationists by surging our forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq, and allegedly killing Osama bin Laden while entertaining the possibility of dialogue with Tehran. Simultaneously clutching his Nobel Peace Prize in one hand and George W. Bush’s preemptive strike doctrine in the other, Obama has straddled this no-man’s land about as well as any president possibly could. But time is running out as the election draws ever nearer, which is why the war rhetoric is beginning to intensify. This diplomatic squeeze is lost only on mouth-breathing Americans whose eyes are glued to the spectacle in the center ring, as they await the outcome of each GOP primary as if it matters. The rest of the planet has adjusted to the darkness as it watches these war preparations very, very closely.

Here’s the current score. Europe has taken a decidedly aggressive stance by leading the way with harsh economic sanctions on Iran forcing the United States to follow suit perhaps more than it might have otherwise. China and Russia have little to gain by punishing Iran as they trade openly. Israel is not above taking matters into its own hands and striking Iran’s nuclear facilities but it requires more assurance from the United States that we will back its play. The less-than-cozy relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarts Israel’s next move, because acting unilaterally without U.S. support is as suicidal as doing nothing may someday prove to be.

 Saudi Arabia, which shares access to the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, also has little patience for Iran’s shenanigans; but it, like Iran’s allies in the area, has its own political and economic issues, and can hardly afford a conflict with any of the region’s stakeholders.

We are witnessing one of the greatest standstills of all time. The deciding vote, however, will likely come from none of the nations mentioned here because a new, more powerful force has emerged in the global landscape with the ability to tip the scales: the people.

From Occupy to the Arab Spring, the past year has shown that the most influential voice in world politics is that of the people. In this new interconnected world, the Iranian government’s clandestine policies and shadowy behavior are anachronistic. That’s not to say Israel and the United States don’t understand this potential, as both admit to stoking tensions within Iran to mobilize its youth in the hopes that they will lead to yet another revolution. If a fruit vendor in Tunisia can set off a series of events that changed the Arab world forever, the same can even happen in a nation as mysterious and closed-off as Iran. Dictators can be ousted and regimes can be toppled without deploying the U.S. military.

It’s why an untimely show of force against Iran would undermine the Iranian people’s naturally occurring dissatisfaction, shown by their willingness to protest the regime’s fraudulent elections and its hard-line stances that have wrought such economic hardship. This phenomenon has been occurring even before the most recent round of rigorous sanctions. In practice, imposing more stringent sanctions or military action may have the opposite of the desired effect by coalescing support for the Iranian government from within. Given the Iranians’ already poor economic circumstances, they may in fact see little distinction between enduring harsh sanctions and a blistering show of force.

Critics of the Obama administration have likened his stance on Iran as akin to that of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler with the Munich Pact in 1938. They claim that the United States is being hoodwinked by Iran’s leadership who will immediately use nuclear weapons against Israel once they possess the capability to do so. Most who have written about the subject, however, believe this is folly, but that it’s better to have an Iran without nukes than one with them. In the meantime, the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction might take a backseat to the mutually assured production of oil. In my mind, the specter of nuclear warfare is a singular endgame issue, not an ongoing strategic battle that dismisses the Chamberlain/Hitler analogy in favor of Kennedy/Kruschev. When both men drew their lines in the sand and realized the lines were in exactly the same spot, everyone knew where they stood during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Because the current leaders of Iran have publicly stated that they are committed to annihilating the state of Israel, they have legitimized the world’s fear of a nuclear Iran. But I would submit that the world doesn’t have an Iran problem, it has an Ahmadinejad problem. Were the U.S. to declare unequivocally that we will use force if Iran’s president denies UN inspectors in Iran or we discover that they have developed the capacity to use nuclear technology beyond domestic energy production, we would hardly be blamed for being the aggressor. But perhaps we should re-examine the role of sanctions and look at things differently because a free and prosperous people have a much greater ability to dictate policy in Iran than we outsiders ever will.

A desperate population with nothing to lose alters the equation of Mutually Assured Destruction and interrupts the natural evolution of the Arab Spring. It’s time to reverse the antiquated notion that a forcibly impoverished nation is ultimately obsequious to those nations that suppress it. President Obama should call upon the Congress and the world to lift all economic sanctions on Iran because sanctions starve the people, not the government. Moreover, the people have proven they know how to seize the opportunity for self determination.

Then we can all go back to watching the circus.


Main Photo: Associated Press

Democracy Ablaze in Cairo

America loves a good dictator; at least when it comes to the strategic installation of one. The problem with dictators is the inevitable egos they develop when left unchecked for too long. It never fails. You help them overthrow the current regime and teach them how to put down insurrections, muzzle the media and detain dissidents until, eventually, they start believing their own propaganda and forget who put them there.

Dictators are the teenagers of world leaders.

Extracting a dictator we have supported or even installed can be such a hassle. But we generally have a very good reason to do so: oil. This is why what is happening in Cairo right now is so perplexing to the U.S. government. Because we don’t covet their oil fields, we have no direct role in what is transpiring there and therefore no underlying reason to choose sides. If we don’t support a democratic uprising, our hypocrisy as the purveyor of global democracy is revealed. Yet, taking the side of the protestors makes Uncle Sam look like a fair-weather friend to Hosni Mubarak, whom we have supported for decades.

As dictators go, Mubarak has always operated on the margins. Since he came to power after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, Mubarak’s greatest achievement has been maintaining his control. And he has done so through brutal authoritarian rule. Egypt has been a place where people can speak their minds but not raise their arms. This false sense of freedom has kept serious, regime-threatening uprisings at abeyance and given the impression to the world that Egyptians are, for the most part, politically apathetic. Until now.

Strategically, Egypt has been of little economic import to the United States in terms of natural resources. And because Egyptians lack the incredible oil wealth of some of their neighbors, they have a slightly more egalitarian distribution of wealth. This is not to say Egypt has a healthy economy. It certainly doesn’t. But it also lacks a wealthy ruling class of oil barons masquerading as governing leaders. Mubarak has never had the resources to hold power, fund extremists and militarize in the way Iraq, Iran and Libya have done so effectively to the detriment of our interests, and so he’s made Egypt and us strange and convenient bedfellows.

In return for our financial support, Egypt has been an important partner in the balance of power in the Arab world. We have given healthy financial support to Egypt throughout Mubarak’s regime to essentially maintain the political status quo; the geographic importance of Egypt—its proximity to Israel and the strategic significance of the Suez Canal—isn’t lost on anyone.

That this is a true democratic uprising, inspired in large part by the recent revolution in Tunisia, places the Unites States in the odd position of spectator. But our egocentricity coaxes us to project our role in the unfolding drama.

Unfortunately, we may have outwitted ourselves by waging two oil wars in the region while tolerating authoritarian rule among our so-called allies. The conundrum in the U.S. is how the conservative hawks, who long argued that our military actions in the Middle East were essential to spreading democracy, handle this situation.

During his presidency, George W. Bush was emboldened enough by his perceived military success abroad that he even pressed Mubarak to accept the coming wave of democracy our wars were ushering into the Middle East. In many ways Bush was prescient and his vision of spreading democracy through might—the ends justify the means—has taken hold in Tunisia and Egypt. No one really saw this coming or believed it possible. No one that is, except for George W. Bush. Our actions in the region have awakened many people in the Middle East who are staking their lives on self-determination and democracy. What we missed is that the leaders of the change view themselves as true radicals and revolutionaries in the spirit of those who founded our own nation and fought tyranny from abroad; but their end-game is very different.

A democratic Egypt would allow for political representation by Islamic fundamentalists who see democracy as the vehicle toward Islamic rule of law. This concept is counter-intuitive to Americans who regard democracy as the goal the uncivilized world truly seeks—whether they realize it or not. But amidst what is viewed as a secular revolt against a harsh regime are highly-educated, devout Muslims who are strongly anti-Semitic and believe that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are largely mythical American inventions that allow the United States to wage war for the purpose of stealing Mideast oil.

Our hunger for war over the past decade is costing us in ways yet to be calculated. In one sense we’re witnessing bloody, yet beautiful democracy unfolding in a manner reminiscent of our own revolution. But we have to realize that our policies and our blood money propped up the very dictatorship the Egyptian people want to dismantle. They see democracy not as the end in itself, but the means to electing a body of officials who would have us banished from the region and our closest ally removed from the map entirely.

Former President George W. Bush has often said he will be vindicated by history. He may already be right. Democracy is infectious. But if our “end” is simply another culture’s “means”, history may indeed vindicate Bush, but only tragically so.