The Oil and the Glory

How to bypass the immutable laws of sanctions

Pakistan has halted cross-border shipments of fuel and other NATO military supplies into Afghanistan, so the U.S. has elevated the importance of its already-much-used detour through Central Asia. Iranian passenger jets, banned for refueling in much of Europe, are gassing up at a private airport in the English township of Kent, 40 miles southeast of ...

Pakistan has halted cross-border shipments of fuel and other NATO military supplies into Afghanistan, so the U.S. has elevated the importance of its already-much-used detour through Central Asia. Iranian passenger jets, banned for refueling in much of Europe, are gassing up at a private airport in the English township of Kent, 40 miles southeast of London. Now, the Arab League has voted sanctions against Syria.

A rule of embargoes is that they rarely work as intended — the targeted victim pays or charges more for its products; middlemen and smugglers get rich; ordinary people become poorer; new trade routes are established and old ones are deepened. Not that sanctions inflict no bite on its victims. It is simply that they rarely result in the sought change of behavior.

So, what do you do if you are Pakistan, wishing to punish the U.S. for killing two dozen of its soldiers in a weekend NATO attack-gone-wrong on the Afghan border? That’s pretty simple — during the last Pakistani embargo, a 10-day stoppage a little over a year ago, unknown assailants destroyed some 150 NATO supply trucks in Pakistan. So even though the U.S. can divert around Pakistan, look for explosions of NATO fuel trucks currently situated in the country.

As for the U.S., which is already diverting some 60 percent of its fuel and other non-lethal military supplies through the Caucasus and Central Asia, it will push up that percentage, hence further reducing the reliance on Pakistan. But that will trigger another hard rule of such situations, which is the physics of monopolies — the direct relationship between one’s reliance on states such as Uzbekistan and Russia, and the disagreeability of their behavior.

Is Washington for example prepared to countenance a new, glove’s-off assault by Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov against his supposed critics? Is it prepared for even less global cooperation from Russia’s Vladimir Putin?

So much for relative U.S. allies. How does one make the long-run of sanctions against Iran more effective? In this case, Washington is merely one advocate — France is the main lobbyist for a European oil embargo after a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed greater certitude about Tehran’s intent on building nuclear warheads.

The volume of Iranian exports potentially affected is 2.2 million barrels of oil a day. The European Union imports about 450,000 barrels of that, and China buys about 540,000 barrels a day. One predictable impact of an embargo will be a shifting around of supplies — more Iranian crude will go to China, and possibly to India and South Korea, while Europe will patronize suppliers currently serving Asia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, ordinary folks will pay more — the price of oil is already surging in advance of the sanctions, with U.S.-traded West Texas Intermediate going over $100 a barrel today, and European-traded Brent crude surpassing $109 a barrel.

Will Iran stop or slow its nuclear arms development? Probably not. Sanctions appear to salve the valid public desire to see something being done. Instead, the most effective action may be something less visible, writes James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Black operations" — examples are the Stuxnet virus and the assassination of Iranian scientists — may already be under way, Lindsay says. In that sense, sanctions themselves are a diversionary tactic.

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