Nuclear chicken with Tehran
We know Iran as a nuclear story — Israel, the United States, and much of the rest of the West are convinced that Tehran is uncomfortably close to deploying a workable atomic weapon, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delights in tweaking his detractors with, at turns, vows to continue the country’s nuclear activities, and to attack ...
We know Iran as a nuclear story — Israel, the United States, and much of the rest of the West are convinced that Tehran is uncomfortably close to deploying a workable atomic weapon, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delights in tweaking his detractors with, at turns, vows to continue the country’s nuclear activities, and to attack Israel. The latest installment is a dust-up over access rights for international inspectors.
But Iran is also an energy story. The United States spent much time trying to prevent Iran from activating its long-in-the-works Bushehr nuclear power station, which, with Russian expertise, will begin to produce electricity in the next month or so.
Having lost that game, the Obama administration is working to shut down Iran’s life-blood oil and gasoline complex, testing whether the Iranian government is prepared to sustain an economic body blow — and thus risk local public support — in order to preserve its presumed nuclear program. The Financial Times‘ Roula Khalaf reports that the U.S.-advanced sanctions are biting: Iran is being forced to stop making potentially crucial chemicals, and instead convert those plants to gasoline production. Likewise, Javier Blas reports in the FT that banking and shipping restrictions are making it harder for Tehran to sell its oil abroad.
But let’s face facts: Around the world, nuclear weapon capabilities play well to domestic audiences — in India, Israel, Pakistan, and in Iran. So does confounding the desires of great powers. Karim Sadjadpour, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Khalaf that a plummet in oil prices under $50 a barrel might turn Iran’s head, since it wouldn’t be able to pay its bills. There is something to that — Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez have become more agreeable negotiating partners when oil prices have dipped. But given Ahmadinejad’s record, and his apparent support within the senior clergy, it’s hard to see these measures resulting in a nuclear stand down.
Finally getting Russia to turn on Bushehr has been a key public relations development for Iran’s leadership. I talked to Dan Byman, an Iran expert and my colleague at Georgetown University. “It showed [Iranians] that they are escaping from isolation,” Byman told me. “It’s something that you play up domestically.”
So we have the continuing game of chicken. Iran says its nuclear efforts are peaceful; the Obama administration says “prove it,” and meanwhile threatens to make the country go dark.
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