BINA/GARDINER: Talk to Iran

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Markets have been watching every move of President Bush and the Israeli government to decipher whether war with Iran is in the making. Few expected, however, that the equivalent of a green light for war would come from our Democratic-controlled Congress. That is what Congress is preparing to do through a resolution calling for a de facto naval blockade in the Persian Gulf to prohibit Iran from importing refined petroleum products.

The last time the United States imposed a blockade on another country was during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy labeled the move “quarantine” because he understood a blockade to be universally regarded as an act of war. Yet, a blockade is exactly what many politicians are considering in Washington and elsewhere.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly suggested the idea to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a recent meeting, and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain alluded to the same during his speech at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington. With hardly a word of opposition, Congress is poised to pass a resolution calling on the president to enact such a blockade, possibly as early as next week. This is a de facto capitulation of the legislative body to the Bush administration.

If they choose to pass this resolution, Congress will make a bad situation worse not only for the American economy, but also for stability in Middle East.

Among factors contributing to short-term oil prices are supply and demand, market speculation and the value of the dollar. Risk of a natural or political catastrophe jeopardizes the production and flow of oil which also plays a major role in the price Americans will have to pay at the pump.

Take, for example, the market´s reaction to Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz´s statement last month that an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites may be “unavoidable.” That statement has been blamed for the largest single-day rise in the price of oil in history — $11 a barrel.

For each instance of tough talk, money is grabbed directly out of the pockets of American taxpayers and sent to oil-producing states — including, of course, Iran.

A declaration from Congress calling on the president to take such drastic action before direct diplomacy even begins would likely fuel even greater uncertainty in the oil sector. And, why shouldn’t it? The Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf is the strategic chokepoint for nearly 40 percent of the world’s oil exports. By recommending a naval blockade in the Persian Gulf, Congress could likely be responsible for oil prices approaching $200 a barrel, which translates to nearly $7.50 a gallon of gas.

Even more significant is the impact such a move would have on the region´s stability. The mere mention of another war in the Middle East sets nerves on edge, and blockading Iran would create a tinderbox where even a small incident could erupt into a conflagration. To say nothing of the fact that a blockade is a prima facie act of war under international law.

Proponents of the naval blockade resolution argue that sanctions and diplomacy have failed, and that the naval blockade is the next step short of war.

They are wrong on both counts: Proper diplomacy — direct talks between the U.S. and Iran — has neither failed nor succeeded, because it has yet to be tried. And the blockade is not a step short of war; it is war. It virtually guarantees military confrontation causing unnecessary casualties on both sides.

The solution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program will be found not by creating a situation that ensures military confrontation, but through direct diplomacy.

Negotiations are the only way for the international community to guarantee that Iran maintains its nuclear program for civilian use while also preventing another disastrous war that will undoubtedly further destabilize the Middle East.

Time is not neutral in this equation. Nor is it on the side of America or Iran. Time is on the side of war. This scenario, as disastrous as it sounds, assumes that bullying Iran will cause Tehran to stop enrichment altogether. The likely scenario, however — and according to keen observers — is that it is a preamble to war.

For each day that passes without dialogue, the world is brought closer to another war in the Middle East — paid first by Americans at the gas pumps, and eventually, American lives and treasure.

Cyrus Bina, distinguished research professor of Economics at the University of Minnesota, is the author of “The Economics of the Oil Crisis.” Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel, has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College and Naval War College.

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