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Conrad Black

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Time for Obama to Grow Some Cojones on Iran

Posted: 01/25/2012 11:12 am

American policy in the Near East is bedeviled by both an enforced ambiguity, the product of decades of runaway oil imports and chronic deficits, and a tactical ambivalence. The deficits have placed huge quantities of U.S. Treasury bonds in not necessarily friendly hands.

U.S. and allied efforts in Afghanistan have been severely hampered by the Haqqani faction of terrorists that has been largely directed by America's former principal ally in the region, Pakistan, which is also the chief source of ammonium nitrate that is the main ingredient in most of the anti-personnel bombs that account for most allied casualties in Afghanistan.

The War on Terror has undoubtedly been retarded by America's huge oil imports, from which its ambivalent ally, Saudi Arabia, largely gains. And in accord with the governing pact in that country between the House of Saud and the Wahhabi establishment (of radical Islam), a significant part of the oil proceeds are applied to the financing of more than 90 per cent of the world's Islamic institutions. While most U.S. imports are from Canada and Mexico, the scale of those imports keeps international prices high and prevents those countries from selling more oil internationally and reducing revenues to terrorism-financing countries.

Despite this, the Obama administration has been very sluggish in expanding domestic oil drilling and natural gas production, and has been distracted by ecological militancy as in the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The U.S. has been serendipitously served by fortuitous advances in fractional hydraulic drilling (fracking), but is still fussing with windmills and worrying about unfathomable climate change.

These ambiguities have afflicted policy toward Iran's nuclear program. President Obama started out saying there was "no time to lose" to begin deterring an Iranian nuclear military capability, but also acted as if his presence as president, a non-white semi-Muslim, would obviate previous problems between non-white and Muslim countries with America. This was the burden of his speeches in Cairo and in Ghana at the outset of his administration. He chose a policy of passivity opposite the brutally fraudulent Iranian election in 2009, and gained no reward for it. He and Secretary of State Clinton have effectively preferred Iran's closest ally, Bashir Assad of Syria, Iran's closest ally, over his opponents in the Syrian civil war.

Obama has tried to square the circle between his purposeful promises to take preventive action against a nuclear Iran and his determination to stick to soft options. Mrs. Clinton spoke darkly of "crippling sanctions" nearly two years ago and the administration has turned the other cheek again and again following Iranian promotion of terrorist organizations in Iraq and Afghanistan, its support for extreme Hezbollah and Hamas conduct in Lebanon and on the frontiers of Israel, and even an alleged attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

In a long-unprecedented display of congressional solidarity, the Senate voted 100-0 for heavy sanctions on Iranian oil and against the Iranian Central Bank. Even more astonishing, though in keeping with its more robust policy toward Colonel Gaddafi, Europe took the lead on sanctions on Iran, though it buys 22 per cent of Iran's oil exports. After all the president's huffing and puffing, he intervened heavily to dilute sanctions.

Once again, as if to fulfill the prophecy of banners endlessly waved about on Iranian ships and small craft harassing American vessels in the Straits of Hormuz that crow: "The US Can't Do a Damn Thing," the Obama administration is trying to suck and blow at the same time. It has dithered so long it is in a tough election year, and desperately wants to avoid an oil price spike that would affect domestic oil and gas prices, and undercut the extremely tentative economic recovery.

The president wants to discourage the Iranian nuclear option program, but avoid the military option and avoid an increase in oil prices. Libyan oil is coming back into the market, Iraqi production is rising, and the Saudis, ignoring Iranian threats more vigorously than have the Americans, have undertaken to make good any shortfall that arises from sanctions on Iran -- and at current prices. The U.S. has warned Israel not to take action against Iran, when the wise tactical course would be to allow a fair degree of sabre-rattling, however reluctant Obama might be to follow up on it.

If America had been more sensible about oil production and imports, it would not be overly concerned about the oil price. If Obama had conceived and started to execute an Iranian nuclear policy in his first days in office, the issue would have been resolved long ago. If the country had not been so profligate, especially in the last three years, the U.S. Treasury would not be quaking in its boots about central banks holding large quantities of U.S. debt agitating the dollar and America's current account. Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner wrote to Senate armed forces committee chairman Carl Levin that tight sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran would be damaging to the administration's "carefully phased" approach and might yield a "net economic benefit to the Iranian regime." This isn't carefully phased; it is pusillanimous humbug.

Starting three years ago, the administration should have moved to reduce oil imports, impose draconian sanctions, avoid the open artery deficits it has done nothing to contain, assist the Iranian democratic opposition, and become both credible and explicit about a military option. In a speech on December 2, Defense secretary Leon Panetta, faithfully reading from his predecessor, Robert Gates' song sheet, warned of "unintended consequences," specifically oil price increases, in the event of a military attack on Iran.

It is inconceivable that the U.S. strategic leadership has not considered what Iranian nuclear military capacity would do to the oil price, to the delicate political balance in the Middle east, to what is left of American alliances in the area, and to the political condition of Israel.

Apart from Europe's 22 per cent, 27 per cent of Iran's oil exports are to China, 18 per cent are to India, 16 per cent are to Japan, and 12 per cent are to South Korea. All of these except perhaps China could probably be induced to cooperate with a squeeze on Iran. Under the sanctions adopted, financial access to the U.S. is to be denied to any financial institution and its host country, that buys oil through the Central Bank of Iran, or conducts any business with that bank other than in food, medicine, or medical devices. The president retained the leeway to waive or vary the sanctions where there is an inadequate supply of oil in the market, the country in question is cooperating with the United States, or he judges that to proceed would not be in the national interest of the United States.

The president has moved a second carrier group to the Persian Gulf and a third is nearby, and has pre-positioned to the area the military hardware and personnel necessary for a use of force. Israel has relocated much of its main nuclear facility at Dimona, an indication of a possible war footing (to preserve its nuclear strike capacity from sudden attack), and Premier Netanyahu has said that Iran appears to be "wobbling." As the Iranian rial has abruptly lost more than 40 per cent of its value, the Iranians have proposed another round in the old charade of having in the U.N. nuclear inspectors. This was Saddam Hussein's old wheeze.

The United States should assert the naval strength necessary to enforce its sanctions; it could prevent any significant reduction in the flow of oil from other Persian Gulf sources, and the alternate suppliers to Iran should be invoked. Any Iranian recourse to force should be overwhelmingly responded to, as it was by President Reagan in 1988. And if Iranian nuclear development continues, an international air interdiction force should stop it, revisiting Iranian air space with whatever force and frequency are required.

The alternatives are either leaving it to Israel to do the world's dirty work for it again while the U.S. and Europe abdicate; or doing nothing and allowing this demented theocracy in Tehran to reduce the entire region to chaos while the world wonders what became of its only Super Power. It is time to lead, and never more so than during an election campaign. That is what American presidents do for a living.