Tag: Iran

Tehran v. Riyadh

The alleged Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir, has served to underscore that Washington and Riyadh view Tehran as a common enemy. This plot has already heightened both parties’ persisting anxieties over Iran, but the U.S.-Saudi partnership has often tended to reinforce, rather than diminish, each side’s most hawkish tendencies.

After the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, Iran developed far greater influence among its allies and co-religionists in Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and the Gulf States. Demonstrating the fear that Iran’s expanded Shia influence has inspired among Saudi leaders, in February 2007 Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal encouraged the United States to strengthen its naval presence in the Persian Gulf, telling a U.S. diplomat that the Saudis would supply the logic for America’s deployment if Washington supplied the pressure.

Of course it is the Kingdom that is alarmed by the possibility of an Iranian SCUD missile attack on Saudi oil facilities; it is the Kingdom that is petrified by the possibility of Iran’s nuclear program posing a threat to the House of Saud’s regional prestige; and it is the Kingdom that has claimed that Shia-Persian Iran has been stage-managing the massive, popular uprisings sweeping the region in order to undermine Sunni Arab regimes. If the United States moves to increase the scope of its political, economic, and military sticks against Iran, it will only serve to invite further Iranian and Saudi intrigues. It may also encourage Iran and other states like it to seek a nuclear deterrent. Responding swiftly to this alleged plot, as some political pundits have encouraged, will further entangle the United States in an intra-Islamic, Shia-Sunni, Arab-Persian rivalry divorced from America’s vital interests.

As an aside, to shed some new light on the scorn currently being heaped on Iran’s odious regime, let us remember that it is America’s strategic ally—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—that remains one of the most oppressive regimes in the Middle East. And as much as folks are fulminating over Tehran’s support for terrorism, in reality it is donors in Saudi Arabia who constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.

Cross-posed from the National Interest.

Tuesday Links

  • A bombing campaign by either Israel or the United States would rally the Iranian people to support an otherwise unpopular and incompetent regime.
  • What else will it take to rally the so-called fiscal hawks to the cause of reducing spending, balancing the budget, and averting national bankruptcy?
  • Senator Franken’s Pay for War Resolution is a superficially a step in the right direction; but when it comes to war, the Senate could probably easily rally a 60-vote supermajority to override any offset requirements.
  • It should be easy to rally around Paul Ryan’s Medicare choice plan, since seniors will lose benefits in the long run anyway.
  • Tax reform proposals are rallying back on both sides of the aisle–will any of them stick?

What’s Wrong with Imported Oil?

In a speech today at Georgetown University, President Obama called for a goal of cutting America’s oil imports by one-third within a decade. Like all efforts to wean Americans from big, bad imports, such a policy will mean we will all pay more than we need to for the energy that helps to power our economy.

I’ll leave it to my able Cato colleagues to dissect the president’s proposal in terms of energy policy, but in terms of trade policy, this is about as bad as it gets.

We Americans benefit tremendously from our relatively free trade in petroleum products. Like all forms of trade, the importation of oil produced abroad allows us to acquire it at a price far lower than we would pay if we had to rely more heavily on domestic oil supplies.

The money we save buying oil more cheaply on global markets allows our whole economy to operate more efficiently. Oil is the ultimate upstream input that virtually all U.S. producers use to make their final products, either in the product itself or for shipping. If U.S. manufacturers and other sectors are forced to pay sharply higher prices for petroleum products because of import restrictions, their final goods will cost more and will be less competitive in global markets. If households are forced to pay more for gasoline and heating oil, consumer will have less to spend on domestic goods and services.

The president talked in the speech about the goal of not being “dependent” on foreign suppliers, but most of our oil imports come from countries that are either friendly or at least not in any way an adversary. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, one third of our oil imports in 2010 came from our two closest neighbors and NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico. Another third came from the problematic providers in the Arab Middle East and Venezuela (none from Iran, less than one-third of 1 percent from Libya.) The rest came from places such as Nigeria, Angola, Colombia, Brazil, Russia, Ecuador and Great Britain.

Even if, by the force of government, we could reduce our imports by a third, there is no reason to expect that the reduction would be concentrated in the problematic providers. In fact, oil is generally cheaper to extract in the Middle East, so a blanket reduction would probably tilt our imports away from our friends and toward our real and potential adversaries.

In one speech, the president has managed to state a policy goal that is bad trade policy, bad security policy, and bad foreign policy.

Does the Internet Cause Freedom?

That will be the subject of a Cato on Campus session this afternoon entitled: “The Internet and Social Media: Tools of Freedom or Tools of Oppression?” Watch live online at the link starting at 3:30 p.m., or attend in person. A reception follows.

The delight that so many felt to see protesters in Iran using social media has given way to delight about the use of Facebook to organize for freedom in Egypt. But this serial enthusiasm omits that the “Twitter revolution” in Iran did not succeed. The fiercest skeptics even suggest that the tweeting during Iran’s suppressed uprising was mostly Iranian ex-pats goosing excitable westerners and not any organizing force within Iran itself. Coming to terms with the Internet, dictatorships are learning to use it for surveillance and control, possibly with help from American tech companies.

So is the cause of freedom better off with the Internet? Or is social media a shiny bauble that distracts from the long, heavy slog of liberating the people of the world?

Joining the discussion will be Chris Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Cato; Alex Howard, Government 2.0 Correspondent for O’Reilly Media; and Tim Karr, Campaign Director at Free Press. More info here.

Heightening the Contradictions in Iran

This, it seems to me, is a sign of a brittle, weak government that is fighting time and surviving exclusively on its nationalist credential:

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran will not allow its universities to begin teaching certain disciplines it deems too “Western,” and existing courses will be revised, a senior Education Ministry was quoted as saying Sunday.

“Expansion of 12 disciplines in the social sciences like law, women’s studies, human rights, management, sociology, philosophy….psychology and political sciences will be reviewed,” Abolfazl Hassani was quoted as saying in the Arman newspaper.

“These sciences’ contents are based on Western culture. The review will be the intention of making them compatible with Islamic teachings.”

Hassani said Iranian universities will not be allowed to open new departments in these disciplines and the curricula for existing departments would be revised.

Link via John Sides.

Striking Findings from the New Chicago Council Public Opinion Survey

I was privileged last night to get an advance look at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ new study on public opinion.  I was struck by several things.

First, the report reflects a strong desire to get our own house in order.  Asked the question whether it “is more important at this time for the United States to fix problems at home or address challenges to the United States from abroad,” a stunning 91 percent selected the former, with only 9 percent pointing to the latter.  (In 2008 the numbers were 82-17.)

That said, there is not as much appetite for cutting the defense budget as I would like to see:

When asked whether defense spending should be expanded, kept about the same, or cut back, 43 percent of Americans prefer to keep spending about the same as it is now, a steady position since 2004, with 30 percent saying expand and 27 percent saying cut back. At the same time, Americans do recognize the need for moderation if federal budget cuts are necessary to reduce the deficit. When asked whether the defense budget should be cut along with other programs in an effort to address the federal budget deficit, a majority (58%) favors at least some cuts—less than other programs (29%), about the same as other programs (20%), and greater than other programs (9%). A substantial number (41%), however, say defense should not be cut at all. Along with the 29% who say it should be cut less than other programs, there is a considerable majority that clearly sees defense spending as a high priority.

Second, the report does a good job of highlighting the fact that although a historically high number of Americans (49%) agree with the idea that America should “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own,” this is not, as it is frequently advertised, “isolationism.”  One needs to define what “our own business” is before one can characterize such a belief.

But perhaps the most striking findings, to my mind, pertained to the U.S.-Israel relationship.  On a general question regarding whether various other countries are “very important” to the United States, Israel fell 7 points from the 2008 figure (from 40 percent to 33 percent), but every country except China suffered a decline, except Iraq, South Korea, and Turkey, which stayed the same.  But the report asked a number of specific questions pertaining to Israel–and U.S. policy toward Iran–that produced answers that were surprising to me:

• On the issue of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, Americans are at present reluctant to resort to a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, preferring economic sanctions and diplomacy.  [Only 18 percent support a strike.]

• Very strong majorities do not think it is likely that a military strike would cause Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program. They also think a strike would likely result in retaliatory attacks against U.S. targets in neighboring states as well as in the United States itself.  [28 percent say it is “not at all likely” and 48 percent say “not very likely” that striking would lead Iran to give up trying to have a nuclear program.]

• If all efforts fail to stop Iran, Americans are about evenly divided on whether to conduct a military strike. [47 percent would favor a strike, 49 percent would oppose.  This surprised me a lot.]

• If Iran were to allow UN inspectors permanent and full access throughout Iran to make sure it is not developing nuclear weapons, a slight majority of Americans believe that Iran should be allowed to produce nuclear fuel for producing electricity. [52 percent would support, 45 percent would oppose, which reflects a slight shift away from allowing Iran enrichment from the findings in 2008.]

But perhaps most striking were these findings, which I would imagine will cause heartburn for Binyamin Netanyahu:

[Americans] also appear to be very wary of being dragged into a conflict prompted by an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In this survey, conducted in June 2010, a clear majority of Americans (56%) say that if Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iran were to retaliate against Israel, and the two were to go to war, the United States should not bring its military forces into the war on the side of Israel and against Iran…


Americans continue to show wariness about defending Israel from an attack by its neighbors. Despite an increase in the percentage of Americans who think military conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors is a critical threat (from 39% in 2008 to 45% today), Americans are divided on using U.S. troops to defend Israel if it were attacked by “its neighbors” (50% opposed, 47% in favor, see Figure 52). This question was also asked with a slightly different wording in surveys from 1990 to 2004 (if Arab forces invaded Israel). In none of these surveys was there majority support for an implicitly unilateral use of U.S. troops.

Food for thought.

Pakistan: Washington’s Blind Spot in Afghanistan

I have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Service Journal that details the ongoing clash of competing strategic interests among the United States, Pakistan, India, Iran, and other regional powers in Afghanistan . It’s a point I’ve belabored in the past (see here, here, here, and here, for example), yet it remains an understated problem in Washington’s Central and South Asia policy. C’est la vie.

Check it out!