- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

President George W. Bush was under no illusions about the threat a nuclear-armed, militant Islamist regime in Tehran would pose. But during two terms in the White House, he took no serious steps to prevent this capability from steadily developing.

President Obama also does not appear to be under any illusions. “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable,” he said during his first postelection press conference.

The Obama administration’s initial response was to pursue “direct diplomatic engagement” with Iran. But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week reportedly told an Arab foreign minister that it now seems “very doubtful” that such an approach will succeed. Significant pressure will be required to persuade Iran’s ruling mullahs to give up their nuclear ambitions.

Short of military action, what leverage can Mr. Obama exert? He could cut off the flow of gasoline to Iran. Indeed, this is an approach for which Mr. Obama has expressed support on at least three occasions. “If we can prevent them from importing the gasoline that they need,” he said during a campaign debate in October, “that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them.”

Iran is one of the world’s leading oil exporters but it has not invested much in oil refineries - it has spent its money on nuclear development instead. As a result, it must import almost half the gasoline it consumes. Just a few companies have been filling Iran’s tanks. The most important of them is Vitol, a Swiss firm.

On Feb. 27, a bipartisan group of House members - Howard Berman, Brad Sherman, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Robert Wexler, Mark Kirk, Rob Andrews and Edward Royce - sent a letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, asking him to reconsider a federal government contract awarded to Vitol in January, just days before the Bush administration left office.

They noted that Vitol has a checkered history, for example, pleading guilty, in 2007, “to grand larceny in New York state court in connection with kickbacks to the Iraqi government” in the Oil-for-Food scandal orchestrated by Saddam Hussein. That alone, the members of Congress wrote, “could provide sufficient grounds for debarment from federal contracting.”

Those who oppose the use of such economic leverage make predicable arguments. For instance, Hossein Askari, an Iranian-born, British-educated professor at George Washington University, asserts that the regime would respond by simply raising prices on domestic gasoline, and then “blame the ‘Great Satan.’”

But as the professor must know, while the mullahs have always blamed the United States for Iran’s woes, fewer and fewer Iranians seem to buy that argument. Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism in both the Bush and Obama administrations, has persuaded more than 80 international banks to stop doing business with Iran. In November, a group of 60 Iranian economists bravely went on record condemning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s “tension-creating” foreign policy, pointing out that his approach had “scared off foreign investment and inflicted heavy damage on the economy.”

It also should not escape notice that Mr. Askari has argued in favor of Iran’s “legal right to enrich and to develop heavy-water reactors.” He has insisted it is not Iran that menaces Israel - but rather Israel that “openly threatens Iran.” That, coupled with American hostility, he wrote, has caused Iran to “feel insecure, victimized and bullied.” So if the mullahs seek nuclear weapons, he added, it is “to develop a deterrent in case of imminent threat.”

Iran’s militant Islamist mullahs have vowed “Death to America!” for three decades. They have ordered the slaughter of American servicemen in Beirut, at Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and throughout Iraq. They have established a client state in Syria, and they use Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist proxies.

Those who persist in portraying the mullahs as victims requiring nuclear weapons as deterrents are entitled to their opinion. But they have no right to be taken seriously -and no one with any grasp of what is happening in the world today would do so.

Clifford D. May is a nationally syndicated columnist and president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

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