President Obama has launched a new round of international diplomatic poker with what's called a "a trailing hand." It is impossible to exaggerate the forces on the table — economic, foreign and domestic — and their interplay.
When he signed the latest Iran provisos Dec. 31, Mr. Obama was handed new clout to cut Iran's energy jugular in the effort to halt Tehran's march toward nuclear weapons — and domination of the Persian Gulf with half of the world's oil. Although he has to report back to Congress, the law gives the president unlimited discretion to act.
Mr. Obama's ace in this hand is the ability to go after Iran's central bank. By indirectly sanctioning dealings with foreigners, he could theoretically bring the mullahs to their knees. He could scramble Iran's oil exports — the world's third largest at about 2.3 million barrels a day, mostly to Asia, bringing in 60 percent of the government's income. The law permits the president to play a marginal hand, for example allowing for dickering on "variances" for countries that deal with Iran. (Greece, near default and heavily dependent on Iranian oil, comes to mind.)
After the U.S. stopped importing Iranian oil in 1987, Washington blocked American companies, France's Total, Royal Dutch Shell and Japanese interests from helping develop Iran's enormous energy potential. That's partly why Iran also faces domestic disaster with 40 percent of its gasoline and 11 percent of its diesel now imported. In the murky world of spot trading, two companies supply most of Tehran's imports — including one firm descended from the notorious Marc Rich, given a last-minute pardon by President Clinton in January 2001 for illicit trading with Iran back in the 1970s. Other targets of American sanctions include not only the oil majors, but just as important, refining equipment makers, insurers and shippers.
But dissuading governments from buying Iran's crude and selling its refined product may take better cards. True, the European Union — which buys about 450,000 barrels daily from Iran — makes encouraging noises about eventually halting purchases. Cautious bankers are backing off from financing Iranian imports as Tehran's storage facilities bulge.
Pressuring Japan to end its dependence on Iranian imports, declining but still equal to 10 percent of the country’s needs, has brought a government split in Tokyo as the country’s tsunami-damaged nuclear plants remain offline. NATO’s increasingly dubious ally, Turkey, also refuses to give up its imports.
When Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner went lobbying to Beijing, he had to read China's hand: China is Iran's biggest single customer and Iran accounts for about 11 percent of the country's oil imports and 5 percent of its overall oil consumption. Beijing's blunt refusal to honor sanctions came despite Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's tour of Gulf suppliers — pointedly excluding a Tehran stop. He undoubtedly is checking whether Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, increasingly feeling endangered by Iran's bellicosity, would throw increased production on world markets. (In fact, given Iran's shakier economic outlook, oil mavens expect Beijing would use sanctions to whittle Tehran's price.)
Mr. Geithner's Beijing importuning was further undercut by China's trade surplus with the U.S., which widened in December by 24.2 percent to $17.4 billion. This American vulnerability suggests why Mr. Obama's fellow players might call any bluff. Throw in the arbitrary time limits he set on Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawal after less-than-conclusive victory and his call for massive military budget cuts, and you see why it will take more than a poker face at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to win this hand.
The president is, in fact, reversing his three-year campaign — often waged overseas — to denigrate America's post-World War II hegemony. Washington responded forcefully to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threat, a probable feint, to close off the Strait of Hormuz. But along with Mr. Ahmadinejad's round of fun and games visiting anti-U.S. Latin American dictators, the threat has to be taken into account. If nothing else, Mr. Ahmadinejad spiked volatile world oil prices (increasing his own revenue) at a time of euro crisis, stagnant growth in Japan and America's staggering unemployment and its stuttering recovery. Additional U.S. sanctions would aggravate all these strains if alternative supply — and decreasing demand because of worldwide recession — do not restrain prices.
Still, answering Republican candidates who are pounding him for the failure of his campaign to appease Iran has begun to take priority at Mr. Obama's Chicago political GHQ. Sanctions on Iran could be seen as part of a bid to turn attention away from the president's continued vulnerability on the domestic economic front. Reminding voters that he concluded the hunt for Osama bin Laden, while Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton aggressively sides with Southeast Asians against Chinese oil and gas claims, as ludicrous as it might have seemed only weeks ago, could be part of a new Obama claim to strong international leadership in hopes of an electoral success in November.
• Sol Sanders, a veteran international correspondent, writes weekly on the intersection of politics, business and economics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and blogs at www.yeoldecrabb.wordpress.com.