Given David Frum’s role as a key ideological architect of the Bush administration’s “global war on terror,” it’s great that he recognizes that air strikes on Iran are a bad idea with lots of unforeseeable consequences.
It’s unfortunate, however, that he seems to have bought the hype on gas sanctions. Frum writes “maybe the most important question to consider is: What effect would air strikes have upon Iranian public opinion?”
The ideal outcome for Iran is a regime change brought about by the Iranian people themselves. Many Iran experts claim that the Iranian population is the most pro-Western in the Muslim world. Would an air war alienate them?
The difficulty of military operations raises the question: Where are the “crippling sanctions” promised by the Obama administration almost a year ago? Iran imports more than half its gasoline. Ending those imports would bloodlessly squeeze the Iranian economy, embarrassing the government and strengthening [anti-] government protests.
Gasoline sanctions, not war, are the true alternative to the present do-nothing policy. When do they start?
First, I know that the Obama administration’s painstaking diplomatic work of cultivating the sort of broad international unity against Iran’s nuclear program unity that would have been utterly unimaginable under the Bush administration is less instantly gratifying that some would prefer, but that doesn’t make it a “do-nothing policy.” This is how a confident and responsible superpower acts.
Second, where’s Frum’s evidence that gas sanctions would strengthen protesters? There is none. The overwhelming consensus among Iran analysts is that gas sanctions are an ineffective and potentially counterproductive tool, and that any anti-government sentiment they generated would most likely be overwhelmed by nationalist solidarity in the face of outside pressure, as has happened in the past. Gas sanctions would also further enrich the Revolutionary Guards who control Iran’s black market. That’s a bad thing.
The government is already embarrassed by Iran’s economic state. According to the LA Times, Ahmadinejad is currently trying to fire his Minister of Petroleum in retaliation for an official report “showing a decline in the country’s oil output during Ahmadinejad’s first term as president.” Gas sanctions would provide a welcome distraction from Ahmadinjad’s own extensive failures as an economic steward. Indeed, the regime would likely welcome such sanctions for the same reasons Frum suggests it would welcome air strikes: as a way to rally a disaffected population.
Members of the Iranian opposition seem to understand this, and have made numerous statements against the “crippling” sanctions that so many American pundits and politicians favor. In September, Green movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi said such sanctions “will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen.” In a November interview with the Washington Times, Green movement spokesman Mohsen Makhmalbaf specifically “rejected proposed U.S. legislation that would target gasoline imports to Iran, saying that would hurt average people.” Makhmalbaf said it was “better to focus on the Revolutionary Guards, who have been at the forefront of repressing demonstrations and who have taken control of considerable elements of the Iranian economy.” Likewise, a Green movement activist, in an interview with the Washington Independent’s Spencer Ackerman, called sanctions targeted at the Revolutionary Guards “a very good move, provided that the [Iranian] people [aren't] affected very much by these sanctions.”
There’s evidence that the Obama administration has been listening, and is tailoring a set of sanctions measures intended to focus on the Guards while sparing, to greatest extent possible, Iran’s population. Secretary of State Clinton said in January that “Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements without contributing to the suffering of ordinary [Iranians] who deserve better than what they are currently receiving.” Clinton told an audience in Qatar yesterday that the goal was to pressure Iran “through sanctions adopted by the United Nations that will be particularly aimed at those enterprises controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which we believe is, in effect, supplanting the government of Iran.”
According to Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., “The idea is to apply pressure on the Revolutionary Guard in order to force a wedge between the opposition movement and the guards, and to affect the guards’ decision-making on the nuclear program.” Broad sanctions that hurt the population, such as those that target gasoline imports, would most likely have the opposite effect. I’ll keep repeating this for as long as people keep making unsubstantiated assertions about the efficacy of gas sanctions.