The standoff over Iran's nuclear program threatens the health of the global economy and risks boiling over into armed conflict. Western preoccupation with the Iranian nuclear program has reached new extremes as Europe and the U.S. have taken measures against Iran that are clearly contrary to their own economic self-interests. Worst of all, these measures are likely to harm ordinary Iranians without changing the regime's behavior on the nuclear issue.
The recent European Union decision to ban Iranian oil imports and freeze assets of Iran's central bank has contributed to the worsening tensions between Iran and Western governments. Europe's embargo on Iran makes no sense as a matter of European self-interest, since some of the countries that are most dependent on Iranian oil also have the weakest economies in Europe and the heaviest loads of debt. Particularly for Greece, which imports a third of its oil from Iran, the prospect of increased energy prices could hardly have come at a worse time. Even though Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 20 percent of the world's oil supply passes, are almost certainly empty ones, the mere possibility of it is enough to roil oil markets and dampen global economic growth.
If Western governments continue to pressure and cajole Iran, it gives Tehran more incentive to cross the line.
U.S. sanctions on Iran's central bank have already done significant damage to the Iranian economy by undermining confidence in Iran's currency. Ordinary Iranians are being subjected to economic suffering as the rial plummets, prices soar, and their savings are destroyed. At the same time, these sanctions pose a threat to the international oil market and could cause a spike in energy prices, which jeopardizes the slow economic recovery here in the U.S. and around the world.
Europe's oil embargo will likely have little effect on the Iranian regime's behavior. Iran expects to be able to offset lost revenues from Europe with new sales to China and other Asian countries that have great demand for energy and do not have the same fixation on the nuclear issue. For its part, China has no interest in cutting itself off from a major energy supplier for the sake of a U.S.-led policy that it doesn't support. India relies on Iran for over a tenth of its oil supply and has announced that it will continue to buy from Iran. Japan has been reducing its imports from Iran in recent years, but it still cannot afford to cut itself off from Iranian oil completely, and has requested waivers from the latest round of sanctions.
Because sanctions and embargoes seem unlikely to change Iran's behavior, it will just be a matter of time before the advocates for these latest sanctions will begin agitating for even "tougher" measures to coerce Iran into accepting the U.S. and its allies' demands. When sanctions fail to isolate Iran as planned, Americans will begin hearing more about the supposed necessity of military action to delay Iran's nuclear program. Attacking Iran would have adverse consequences for all parties involved and for the global economy. The U.S. must not blunder into another unnecessary "preventive" war. It would be a grave mistake, as well as a violation of international law. What is needed instead is a reappraisal of our entire Iran policy.
Iran clearly desires to have a nuclear capability, but as far as anyone can tell, the regime has not yet decided to build nuclear weapons. This is a critical distinction that needs to inform all policymaking toward Iran. If the U.S. and its allies handle the nuclear issue wisely, the regime may not opt for nuclear weapons at all. If Western governments continue to pressure and cajole Iran, however, it gives Tehran more incentive to cross that line.
The real focus of the nuclear standoff concerns Iran's enrichment of uranium, to which Iran is formally entitled under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So long as the U.S. insists on halting Iranian enrichment, Iran's government cannot yield without suffering the humiliation that would follow from backing down over an issue that it has insisted was a matter of Iranian national rights. This is why it is imperative that the U.S. and EU find terms for a nuclear deal that Iran can accept, so that the standoff can be resolved or at least so that tensions can be reduced.
Unfortunately, electoral politics in the U.S. may close the small window of opportunity for renewed talks that exists. President Obama's hawkish critics have regularly accused him of "appeasement" and "emboldening enemies," and nowhere more so than on his decisions relating to Iran. Even though these criticisms are baseless, they have shaped the way Iran's nuclear program and administration policy have been perceived at home, which leaves Obama with little room to maneuver. That may make it politically impossible for Obama to reach any deal with Iran, and Obama's Republican opponent will have no interest in negotiating for one.