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HOLLIDAY: Defeating the petro-authoritarians

Iran’s threats to oil shipments add urgency to drive for oil independence

- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2012

As the world finished celebrating the holidays of peace, the Iranian mullahs appeared again to be planting seeds of conflict in the Middle East. They have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, vital to global energy supply, as part of a military exercise. In doing so, Iran continues its high-stakes game of chicken with civilized countries around the globe.

While the United States can't always stop foreign regimes from acting irresponsibly or irrationally, our lack of a comprehensive national energy policy can put our nation at inherent risk whenever dictators or tyrants decide to use their oil reserves as a weapon.

Iran's capacity and willingness to block this strategic maritime passage carries global economic implications. Seventeen percent of the planet's oil exits the Persian Gulf by way of the strait, and taking this supply off the market for any significant period of time would send shock waves around the world, propelling gasoline and heating-oil prices through the roof, wreaking havoc on already teetering national economies in Europe and here in North America and demonstrating to every industrialized nation that we remain vulnerable to rogue states that would do us harm.

Coupling this with the recent downing and capture of our Predator drone, it's easy to conclude that any semblance of global stability has been set askew by Iran.

While some dismiss the mullahs' activities as "saber rattling," the overall instability in the region should give all Americans - and America's allies - pause, especially considering our nation's perilous position of energy dependence.

Thomas Friedman coined the phrase "petro-authoritarianism" for regimes that leverage their nation's oil supply to enrich its leaders and strengthen its military to the detriment of the public's general welfare. Iran's mullahs certainly are not above such behavior, as evidenced by their aggressive use of oil profits to ensconce themselves in power as they pursue an ill-advised and globally threatening nuclear-weapons development program.

What's more, with the recent withdrawal of U.S. and coalition troops from Iraq after nine years, the oil-rich region of southern Iraq is dangerously exposed to its revolutionary Iranian neighbors to the east. And though the United States retains significant strategic military capability in the region, there is little - short of war - that could be done to stop a zealous Iran from expanding its influence in Iraq. One has to wonder if the American military - or the American public - could stomach another long-term engagement in the region.

If the Iranians take any action - whether it's an aggressive move into Iraq or a military exercise to shut down Hormuz - there would need to be a strong coordinated global response. There's concern that any truly international multilateral response could be weak. Permanent U.N. Security Council members include those countries that may be conflicted on the Iranian issue as a result of their own strategic interests.

Famed philosopher George Santayana posited, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." For generations, the security and economic success of the United States has been dependent on the willingness of foreign - and often unfriendly - nations to sell their energy reserves on the global market. Predictably, we've paid a price for this dependency, from oil rationing during the world wars to the shortages of the 1970s and erratic price spikes in recent years. It seems that every time there is a global energy crisis, the debate for broader North American energy development increases, only to stall when the immediate threat simmers down.

Any national energy policy must include closer cooperation with our Canadian friends. Canada, a stable neighboring democracy with shared values, is an obvious ally as we look to mitigate risk. Canada, already our biggest energy partner, thinks it can send an additional 700,000 barrels of oil a day to U.S. refineries via the Keystone XL pipeline, nearly half of what the U.S. receives from the Persian Gulf. On the other hand, if the United States refuses to take on the additional Canadian oil supply, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has indicated his country will sell it to other countries, including China.

Additionally, the United States is blessed with considerable energy within its own borders and just off its coasts. It's time to end the decades-long impasse and develop our domestic resources. Today, while U.S. companies are banned from coastal oil exploration, Cuba-sanctioned drilling is taking place just 50 miles from Florida. Natural-gas development is also possible throughout the Northeast and Midwest that could help power our nation and stabilize our economy while insulating us from geopolitical unrest. It is also vital for America to continue to innovate and invest in new energy technologies and research that possibly can create more efficient supply.

It's time for the United States to act by strengthening its energy standing in the world. Doing so will fortify our economic and national security against unpredictable petro-authoritarians like those in power in Iran.

Stuart W. Holliday is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Security Council.

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