Is Iran gas ban a step toward war? By Michael Klare
As the Barack Obama administration struggles to devise a strategy for dealing
with Iran's intransigence on the uranium-enrichment issue, it appears to be
gravitating toward the imposition of an international embargo on gasoline sales
to that country.
Such a ban would be enacted if Iranian officials fail to come up with an
acceptable negotiating plan by the time the United Nations General Assembly
meets in late September - the deadline given by the White House for a
constructive Iranian move.
Iran, of course, is a major oil producer, pumping out some 4.3 million barrels
per day in 2008. But it is also a major petroleum consumer. Its oil industry
has a significant structural weakness: its refinery capacity is too constricted
to satisfy the nation's
gasoline requirements. As a result, Iran must import about 40% of the refined
products it requires. Government officials are attempting to reduce this
dependency through rationing and other measures, but the country remains highly
vulnerable to any cutoff in gasoline imports.
Many in Washington view Iran's vulnerability as an opportunity to coerce the
country into abandoning its nuclear-arms program. Although senior Iranian
officials deny that they are seeking nuclear munitions, many Western analysts
believe that the enrichment effort now under way at a huge centrifuge facility
in Natanz is intended to produce highly enriched uranium for an eventual
Despite pressure from the United States and the European Union, Tehran has
refused to cease work at Natanz or to consider a slowdown there as part of a
negotiating process. If Iran persists on this course, proponents of a gasoline
embargo argue that sanctions should be the next step.
Instead of war?
Many prominent figures in the United States and Israel favor not economic
sanctions but military action if Tehran fails to cease its uranium enrichment.
As such, the administration is looking to take a step that gives the impression
of forceful action yet falls short of a risky military engagement. Cutting off
gasoline deliveries to Iran, it is thought, could provide such an option.
President Obama himself touted the appeal of such a move in the final
presidential debate, on October 15, 2008. "If we can prevent them from
importing the gasoline that they need, and the refined petroleum products, that
starts changing their cost-benefit analysis," he declared. "That starts putting
the squeeze on them."
Obama has not expressed a similar view since taking office, but many around him
are believed to favor this approach. Every action carries grave risks, Senator
Evan Bayh observed at a recent hearing on the topic, "[but] I firmly believe
... that using economic pressure is far superior to the extreme alternatives of
standing idly by as Iran goes nuclear, or relying on a military strike, which
could have grave consequences and should be contemplated only as a last
If Iran fails to come up with a constructive negotiating stance by the time the
UN General Assembly meets in September, the White House should develop a
playbook with options other than war. Attacking the centrifuge facility at
Natanz and other Iranian nuclear facilities might set back the country's
nuclear ambitions for a time, but it could also provoke a wider conflict that
would severely harm vital US interests.
Iran is likely to respond to such an attack by attacking oil facilities and
tankers throughout the Persian Gulf area - driving oil prices sky-high again -
and sponsoring a fresh round of violent attacks by its proxies in Iraq,
Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East. A unilateral US strike on Iran would
also provoke the same sort of international condemnation that greeted the
American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Having options short of war is, therefore, something to be greatly desired. But
one must ask: would a ban on gasoline sales prove a step toward peace, or a
step toward war? That is, would it make armed conflict less likely by forcing
the Iranians to return to the bargaining table in a more accommodating mood, or
would it prove a stepping-stone to military action?
No one can be absolutely sure about this, of course. But there are good reasons
to be skeptical about a gasoline ban's effectiveness in promoting peace and
Why it might not work
To be effective, a gas ban would require the acquiescence of Russia, China,
India and other key powers that are reluctant to impose harsh sanctions on
Iran. These countries conduct extensive trade with Iran and are not likely to
jeopardize their well-established position there by complying with a US-backed
China and Russia, with veto rights at the UN Security Council, are unlikely to
approve any measure that entailed enforcement of a gasoline ban through a naval
blockade in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, an action essential to prevent
cheating and smuggling. With the tacit support of its business partners, the
Iranians could easily circumvent the embargo through various means.
A US-imposed embargo on refined products would also allow the Ahmadinejad
regime to initiate tougher gasoline rationing, raise energy prices, and push
through other unpopular economic moves - all in the name of nationalism and
anti-imperialism. Anyone who objected to such moves would be branded as an ally
or agent of the "Great Satan," the United States.
Under these circumstances, the Iranians would not likely be more inclined to
negotiate away its enrichment program than it would absent such a ban. If
anything, the conservative mullahs who rule the country may see it as a godsend
- as a way of solidifying domestic support at time when many young Iranians
appear to be rejecting clerical domination.
On the other hand, a gasoline embargo might provoke the Iranians into taking
steps that would increase the risk of war, especially if the United States
employed military means to enforce the ban. For example, they could encourage
their allies in Iraq, such as the more militant followers of Muqtada al-Sadr,
to renew their attacks on American soldiers in Baghdad and elsewhere.
In recent months the Sadrists have been relatively quiescent, preferring to
engage in political rather than military struggle. But they have hardly
eschewed their capacity for mischief, and, with the right prodding from Tehran,
might again target American personnel and their Iraqi partners, complicating
the US withdrawal.
Leading to war?
More frightening scenarios could unfold if the US and its closest allies seek
to enforce an embargo by establishing a naval blockade in waters off Iran and
stopping ships thought to be violating the ban. Given the high likelihood of
cheating, such a blockade would probably be necessary for the embargo to prove
effective. But such a move could be considered an act of war, and might well
invite retaliation by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps - which sports its own
An eerie preview of such a scenario occurred in January 2008, when five Iranian
speedboats approached several American warships in the Strait of Hormuz and,
according to some reports, threatened to blow them up. One US ship, the USS
Hopper, was on the brink of opening fire on the Iranian boats when they
veered off, ending the engagement.
It is easy to imagine similar scenes - with less benign outcomes - repeating
themselves, in the event that American warships attempt to blockade Iranian
territory. Once shots are fired, under whatever circumstances, it could prove
difficult to avoid escalation to more robust military means, leading to the war
scenario the embargo was intended to avert.
That a ban on gasoline sales to Iran carries these potential downsides is not a
reason to abandon consideration of such a move. As suggested, it is far better
to be thinking of economic sanctions if Iran proves intransigent in the months
ahead than to opt automatically for military action.
But an oil embargo appears especially risky, both because it would strengthen
the hand of conservative clerics in Tehran and it could entail a naval
blockade, setting off a chain reaction of violent moves. Administration
officials should, therefore, scrutinize this option very rigorously before it
becomes the preferred response to an Iranian rebuff in September.
Michael T Klare is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, a professor
of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College, and the author, most
recently, of Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of