Iran’s nuclear program is the focus of disappointing United Nations diplomacy and reckless talk of U.S. and Israeli air strikes. It has also spurred joint plans by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to build a nuclear reactor of their own. Unfortunately, the world cannot stop Iran from acquiring the capability to build nuclear weapons merely with promises of increased trade or sanctions that hurt carpet weavers but do not affect Iran’s oil exports.
Even war won’t work. When Israel destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1982, Iraq had just that one reactor. Iran, by contrast, has widely dispersed its nuclear facilities. The area is both mountainous and vast, the size of the American South, east of Texas.
If the world is serious about discouraging Israeli air strikes and Saudi reactors, it must use the two points of leverage it has with Iran: a short-term stick and a long-term restriction. Both involve oil.
First, Iran refines only 60 percent of the gasoline it uses. It imports the rest of its gasoline from India, France and nearby Arab countries. This gives the world a grip on Iran’s economy should strong action become necessary. It is vital that the United States win a commitment from the Russians, Chinese and Western Europeans not to build more gasoline refineries in Iran. A petrochemical plant, fine. A pipeline, fine. But not a refinery.
Second, Iran’s oil production of 4 million barrels a day is stagnant. Iran’s geologists can increase oil production only enough to offset the decline of aging fields. Iran’s 75 million people already use 37 percent of their nation’s petroleum, and they are doubling their oil consumption every decade. If the world can prevent Iran from increasing its oil production, Iran’s petroleum exports could fall to half the current level by 2020 and stop completely by 2030. By then, if not sooner, Iran’s deeply unpopular theocracy, starved of money, could collapse just as the Soviet Union did when its oil revenues plummeted in the 1980s.
The Chinese and Europeans can continue to buy oil and natural gas from Iran, but they should not send geologists and engineers to help Iran increase its oil production. It is in China’s and Europe’s interest to make this rather small concession, because without economic pressure it will be harder to discourage military action that would almost certainly lead to a disruption of oil supplies.
Finally, the United States needs to reframe the nuclear issue. It seems patronizing for Americans to tell Iranians they cannot enrich uranium when we ourselves have thousands of nuclear weapons. We need to let the Iranian people know that it is not Iranian atomic development we fear, but dictatorial fanatics having atomic bombs. A nuclear-armed theocracy is a threat anywhere in the world if its leaders believe that death is inconsequential because Judgment Day is imminent.
Hawks who think that “surgical” strikes can set back Iran’s nuclear program by more than a year or two are dangerously naive. Consider: In 2006, after a month of heavy bombing, Israel reduced the number of Hezbollah’s missiles in southern Lebanon by only a third. And southern Lebanon is 400 times smaller than Iran. War also unites people behind their government, rallying even opponents to an embattled regime.
As for diplomacy, it has been six years since Iranian dissidents first revealed the existence of Iran’s secret nuclear facilities, yet Iran continues to avoid serious negotiations on the subject. We must therefore be wary. Any trade concession that Iran’s hard-liners win from the West will be gobbled immediately, like a piece of chocolate, on the assumption that any long-term commitment they have made in return can be renegotiated later.
In the absence of international resolve or fruitful diplomacy, it will be hard for the Iranian people to overthrow or even to change their government, but it can be done if the regime runs out of money. It is vital that the world unite and refuse to send geologists or engineers to Iran to build a new refinery or help the government increase its oil production. Oil is Iran’s greatest strength. It is also its greatest weakness.
• Mark Weston is the author of “Prophets and Princes — Saudi Arabia from Muhammad to the Present.”