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Why Washington’s Iran Policy Could Lead to Global Disaster
Posted on Apr 14, 2012
By Juan Cole, TomDispatch
A Danger of Blowback
The story of the 1953 CIA coup in Iran is well known, but that its success depended on the preceding two years of fierce sanctions on Iran’s oil is seldom considered. A global economic blockade of a major oil country is difficult to sustain. Were it to have broken down, the U.S. and Britain would have suffered a huge loss of prestige. Other Third World countries might have taken heart and begun to claim their own natural resources. The blockade, then, arguably made the coup necessary. That coup, in turn, led to the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini a quarter-century later and, in the end, the present U.S./Israeli/Iranian face-off. It seems the sort of sobering history lesson that every politician in Washington should consider (and none, of course, does).
As then, so now, an oil blockade in its own right is unlikely to achieve Washington’s goals. At present, the American desire to force Iran to abolish its nuclear enrichment program seems as far from success as ever. In this context, there’s another historical lesson worth considering: the failure of the crippling sanctions imposed on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1990s to bring down that dictator and his regime.
What that demonstrated was simple enough: ruling cliques with ownership of a valuable industry like petroleum can cushion themselves from the worst effects of an international boycott, even if they pass the costs on to a helpless public. In fact, crippling the economy tends to send the middle class into a spiral of downward mobility, leaving its members with ever fewer resources to resist an authoritarian government. The decline of Iran’s once-vigorous Green protest movement of 2009 is probably connected to this, as is a growing sense that Iran is now under foreign siege, and Iranians should rally around in support of the nation.
Strikingly, there was a strong voter turnout for the recent parliamentary elections where candidates close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei dominated the results. Iran’s politics, never very free, have nevertheless sometimes produced surprises and feisty movements, but these days are moving in a decidedly conservative and nationalistic direction. Only a few years ago, a majority of Iranians disapproved of the idea of having an atomic bomb. Now, according to a recent Gallup poll, more support the militarization of the nuclear program than oppose it.
The great oil blockade of 2012 may still be largely financially focused, but it carries with it the same dangers of escalation and intervention—as well as future bitterness and blowback—as did the campaign of the early 1950s. U.S. and European financial sanctions are already beginning to interfere with the import of staples like wheat, since Iran can no longer use the international banking system to pay for them. If children suffer or even experience increased mortality because of the sanctions, that development could provoke future attacks on the U.S. or American troops in the Greater Middle East. (Don’t forget that the Iraqi sanctions, considered responsible for the deaths of some 500,000 children, were cited by al-Qaeda in its “declaration of war” on the U.S.)
The attempt to flood the market and use financial sanctions to enforce an embargo on Iranian petroleum holds many dangers. If it fails, soaring oil prices could set back fragile economies in the West still recovering from the mortgage and banking scandals of 2008. If it overshoots, there could be turmoil in the oil-producing states from a sudden fall in revenues.
Even if the embargo is a relative success in keeping Iranian oil in the ground, the long-term damage to that country’s fields and pipelines (which might be ruined if they lie fallow long enough) could harm the world economy in the future. The likelihood that an oil embargo can change Iranian government policy or induce regime change is low, given our experience with economic sanctions in Iraq, Cuba, and elsewhere. Moreover, there is no reason to think that the Islamic Republic will take its downward mobility lying down.
As the sanctions morph into a virtual blockade, they raise the specter that all blockades do—of provoking a violent response. Just as dangerous is the specter that the sanctions will drag on without producing tangible results, impelling covert or overt American action against Tehran to save face. And that, friends, is where we came in.
Juan Cole is the Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History and the director of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. His latest book, “Engaging the Muslim World,” is available in a revised paperback edition from Palgrave Macmillan. He runs the Informed Comment website. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Cole discusses the consequences of sanctions on Iran, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
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Copyright 2012 Juan Cole
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