Three years ago, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asserted that Iran must be compelled to negotiate seriously regarding its nuclear-weapons program. He described this approach as “the only one that would prevent a catastrophic alternative: the Iranian bomb, or bombing Iran.” Today, the Islamic regime is closer than ever to nuclear capability, and the international community still lacks a coherent plan to force Iran to the table.
A task force report released this week by the American Foreign Policy Council entitled “Toward An Economic Warfare Strategy Against Iran” lays out some of the potential measures short of war that could push Tehran towards a peaceful solution. The task force concludes that the U.S. needs to “marshal a comprehensive economic warfare strategy toward the Islamic Republic - one that leverages the latent vulnerabilities inherent in the Iranian economy to ratchet up the cost of the regime’s nuclear endeavor.”
Among the suggestions given, it appears that the best place to hit Iran is in the gas tank. Despite being one of the world’s leading oil producers, Iran lacks refining capacity and is the world’s second-largest importer of gasoline. Congress, through the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act, passed in January 2010, has taken special aim at Iran’s gasoline sector. The act authorizes sanctions “on any entity that provides, or helps Iran obtain, refined petroleum, including suppliers, shippers, banks, insurance and reinsurance companies, as well as companies that supply equipment to Iran that could be used to expand or construct oil refineries.”
Iran is very vulnerable on the fuel front. Prices per gallon are less than a quarter of what they are in the United States, and consumption is on the rise. The regime has attempted to deal with gas shortages by raising prices and introducing rationing. Both measures have sparked discontent and widespread public resistance.
Economic warfare against Iranian gas is a good example of the kind of crippling sanctions that President Obama liked to talk about when he was running for office. But after taking power, “crippling” sanctions were superseded by “targeted” sanctions aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and specific aspects of the nuclear program. This effort is misguided because, as we have seen with North Korea, repressive regimes seeking nuclear-weapons capability will make certain that sanctions harm their most important interests last, if at all. Only comprehensive measures will have any hope of achieving the kind of impact that will slow or stop the nuclear program.
The task force also recommends comprehensive programs targeting Iranian pipelines, financial services, international trade, promoting divestment and export controls. The United States and other countries that recognize the threat posed by Iranian nuclear weapons need to begin to work in a coordinated fashion to implement specific ideas like the ones outlined in the report if diplomacy has any chance of succeeding. The longer we wait, the fewer options will be left. A military strike against Iran, while an imperfect solution, is rapidly becoming the only viable means of slowing or stopping Tehran’s drive for nuclear capability. Failing to act quickly will leave the international community with the two choices noted by Mr. Sarkozy. This is the same as choosing war, either on Iran’s terms or our own.