- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Joseph Sarkisian
Best Defense department of politico-military affairs
Lately a lot of journalists have been pointing out the neo-conservative return from the grave manifested in Mitt Romney’s foreign policy team. The list is a who’s who of advisors under the most recent Bush administration — 15 of the 22 of them — including six former members of the "Project for a New American Century." If you recall, this was the same group of policy "experts" that advocated the war in Iraq with confidential reasons to bust OPEC by privatizing Iraq’s oil infrastructure, removing the Saudis’ ability to set prices, and flooring the price of crude.
Clearly this never came to pass and Iraq has remained a member of OPEC. However, although the neo-conservatives lost in their war with the State Department and oil industry to privatize Iraq, a campaign against Iran would give them another shot.
While conflict with Iran may partly be attributed to its nuclear program, it isn’t the whole story. Just like with the Baathist regime, the powers that were and may be again are unhappy that an authoritarian regime with a hatred for Israel to boot is having so much say in the price America pays for a barrel of oil. In 2003, the surface motivation was about Iraqi WMD, and today the surface motivation is about Iranian WMD. This unsubstantiated fear proved to be the catalyst the OPEC-busters needed to move on Iraq. That same catalyst could be used to move on Iran.
Iran is much more easily vilified simply because it actually has a nuclear program, unlike Iraq did. Therefore public support for a campaign to make sure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon is winning against non-intervention. But the neo-conservative constituency isn’t appeased with the setting back of Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, some of them advocate for full-scale regime change.
The neo-cons moan over the uselessness of sanctions, and on this point they may be correct, but not for the right reasons. The issue as they state it is Iran having adequate time to put together a nuclear device. This may or may not be the case, but it certainly is the case that regardless of the Ayatollah’s plans for his fissile material, the rhetoric keeps oil prices high, as potential kinetic conflict over the issue becomes more of a possibility.
A back and forth approach to ceding some ground on the nuclear issue keeps the price of oil up, which is good strategy for Iran. However, if prices get too high, the regime may effectively commit suicide if a conservative White House loses its temper. Therefore, the current price of oil is close to ideal since it keeps Iran in the sweet spot of dividing the world over whether or not to intervene. Although sanctions are appearing to hurt the Iranian economy, higher oil prices will benefit them if they can strike a deal with China and India to buy what the EU leaves sitting on the tanker. They’ll have six months to figure it out.
None of this bodes well for neo-cons who understand that this back and forth will keep oil expensive for the foreseeable future. Therefore, a plea for regime change in Iran would make sense in their eyes, just like it did in 2003. And why not? Public opinion seems to favor at least intervention at this point, Israel is more than happy to help out, and Iran is easier to sell than Iraq ever was. It wouldn’t be hard to put Mitt Romney on a plan to privatize Iran’s oil infrastructure given the opportunity; he is a businessman after all.
But as we’ve seen, neo-conservatives aren’t much interested in the consequences of action; only the consequences of inaction by others that they believe are too "soft" on Iran, which is pretty much everyone but themselves. They fail to realize that Iran is not Iraq and that it can defend itself. Regime change doesn’t happen from the air. Considerable ground forces would be necessary for such a campaign, and Iran has a trained insurgency at the ready that would make Iraq look like Grenada. This would undoubtedly drive the price of oil skyward for an extended period of time, just like it did in 2003.
One entity may be powerful enough to oppose such grand plans (and sadly it isn’t the American voters): Big Oil. They shut down the plan to privatize Iraq in 2003 and may be able to do the same thing in Iran if there were an attempt to do so. No OPEC means more competition in the market place, which means lower prices. Translate that to lower profit for oil companies and one can see the connection. Keeping oil in the ground makes more sense to an oilman than taking it out when there is excess supply.
It may be rhetoric in an election year as some have posited, but Israel’s involvement and the alignment of many on Romney’s foreign policy team with AIPAC and Israeli interests points to a long lasting commitment to taking on Iran in one way or another, whether it is good for American interests or not. Only time will tell, but it is very hard to believe that given the chance, the neo-conservatives wouldn’t try and bust OPEC to achieve their goal of reclaiming the almighty American empire one more time.
Joseph Sarkisian is a graduate student in international relations at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, where he is also a teaching assistant for political science. The focus of his research is U.S.-Iranian relations.