[OVERSEAS VIEW]The best way to slow Iran is to cut oil use

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[OVERSEAS VIEW]The best way to slow Iran is to cut oil use

When the IAEA, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog in Vienna, presented the Security Council with its damning report on Iran’s nuclear program, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded like an angry teenager. His country “did not give a damn,” and “whether our enemies like it or not, Iran is a nuclear power,” he said, adding that Iran would make “no concessions.”
We have reached the point predicted by many. The UN has certified that Iran has been continuing uranium enrichment and hiding key parts of its nuclear program from inspectors.
It has also added two other worrisome indictments. Far from stopping enrichment, Iran has accelerated the process. In addition, Iran has acquired plutonium from abroad.
This is troubling because plutonium opens a far quicker road to the bomb than uranium. Natural uranium requires a very costly and complicated enrichment before it becomes weapons-grade. Plutonium, on the other hand, needs no further work. Eight kilos (17 pounds) are enough for a bomb.
So two points are clear: Iran is reaching for the bomb, and it does not “give a damn” about the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad can afford this dangerous provocation because he knows that the world, at least at this point, won’t do anything about it.
Really serious sanctions? Iran would grind to a halt if the world stopped buying Iranian oil and delivering refined products such as gasoline.
One-quarter of Iran’s GDP comes from oil and gas revenue, and energy sales pay 40 percent of the national budget. Stop the flow of money, and the country will stop. But will this happen when the global oil market is stretched to the breaking point, with oil fetching 75 dollars per barrel? Not likely.
What about military options? They can be done, but it won’t be a cakewalk. It would require a serious air and naval war, taking many weeks.
First, Iran’s air defenses would have to be demolished; this might take a couple of weeks. Then, a multiplicity of mostly hardened targets, such as the enrichment plant in Natanz, would have to be destroyed. Make that another two weeks.
But before either of these two campaigns begin, the most immediate threat must be handled: Iranian attacks on tanker traffic in the Persian Gulf.
A single destroyed tanker would send oil prices into the sky.
If the Iranians managed to sink a couple of tankers in the narrow Straits of Hormuz (at the mouth of the Gulf), all traffic would stop. Whether oil will then go to 150 dollars per barrel is anybody’s guess. Hence, Iran’s naval bases in the Gulf, plus its strike aircraft, must be immobilized. Since all of this will have to be done very quickly, the coalition might have to field, say, 500 airplanes, including strategic bombers and refuelling planes.
It can be done, but it is not likely while the United States is tied down in Iraq. So what is left?
A replay of the strategy enacted by the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
It was laid out in the famous “containment doctrine” written by George F. Kennan in 1947: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigorous containment of Soviet expansive tendencies.” The purpose was either the “break-up” or the “mellowing” of Soviet power.
Iran is like the early Soviet Union. Animated by a self-righteous and universal ideology (in the name of Allah, not of Marx), governed by a totalitarian regime and driven by hegemonial ambitions, Iran can only be domesticated by a “long-term” and “patient” strategy.
This requires, first of all, the credible threat that Iran will be devastated if it ever launched a nuclear weapon.
It requires, second, local alliances with those Arab states that may hate the United States, but fear the revolutionaries in Tehran even more.
Third, it requires constant pressure and thus the denial of those benefits that strengthen the regime ― be it diplomatic, technological or economic assistance.
Even revolutionaries don’t like to be isolated. Their population likes it even less.
This is why containment must hold out a fourth and final element: the prospect of eventual cooperation. “Talk to us, and we will talk to you,” should be one motto. “Give and you shall receive,” is another. Of course, one item should be stricken from the list: “regime change.”
The reason is very simple. Why would any regime even think about negotiating and conceding if its survival is threatened? If I am on the target list, I have no incentive to offer any compromises.
Does the world still have time for such a strategy? The prudent answer is “yes.” It will take Iran anywhere between four to eight years to move from enrichment and the possession of plutonium to an effective nuclear strike force. This gives the West some time for the most effective weapon of them all: reducing its painful dependency on oil.
When oil is back to 30 or 40 dollars, Iran will be a lot less provocative, and the West can be a lot more demanding.

* The writer, the publisher-editor of Die Zeit in Germany, is currently teaching U.S. foreign policy at Stanford University, where he is also a fellow at the Hoover Institution.

by Josef Joffe
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