As the 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 UN 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. And 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 its refined products. 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 Iranian bomb. Despite massive 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 Barack 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 (D-IN) observed at a recent hearing on the topic, “[but] I firmly believe…that using economic pressure is far superior to the extreme alternatives of sanding 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 resort.”

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 cooperation.

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 U.S.-backed measure. China and Russia, with veto rights at the Security Council, are unlikely to approve any UN 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 devious means.

A U.S.-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 U.S. withdrawal.

Leading to War?

More frightening scenarios could unfold if the United States 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 — which sports its own small-ship navy.

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 U.S. ship, the U.S.S. 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. And 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 Energy.

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