Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Other Countdown

I missed commenting on the latest round of oil deals in Iraq, which could see that country's output quickly double and eventually quadruple, causing no small amount of anxiety within OPEC. It's looking increasingly likely that the world may need that oil sooner rather than later, though. While the backdrops of photos from Copenhagen display the "tck tck tck" mantra symbolizing the conference as our last, best chance to avert catastrophic climate change, we shouldn't forget that another clock with a shorter timeline is also ticking down on our last chances to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Business leaders are often advised not to let the urgent drive out the important. Although climate change has been billed as having both attributes, so do Iran's nuclear ambitions, and their implications in the next decade take urgency to a higher level. Yesterday's Washington Post featured a chilling analysis of the progress Iran has been making on fronts other than the Uranium enrichment that has attracted so much attention. This includes a leaked memo from the International Atomic Energy Agency assessing Iran's capabilities and another purportedly from inside Iran showing that the government is working on a "neutron initiator." If these assessments are right, then the controversial National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 placed far too much faith in indications that the regime had decided to cancel work on a warhead. Our subsequent patience with them--and with our Security Council partners--has provided Iran with crucial time in which to advance its goals.

While we were in a poor position to ratchet up the pressure sufficiently in 2007 or 2008, when Iran's oil exports made the difference between high oil prices and a crippling oil shock, that constraint disappeared last fall. The combination of OPEC's current spare capacity of at least 6 million barrels per day and the prospect of Iraqi output increases that could dwarf Iran's exports has largely neutralized the threat of an Iranian embargo, perhaps permanently.

Now, it's still possible that the visible parts of Iran's nuclear efforts are a sham mounted mainly for our benefit, similar to the double feint concocted by Saddam Hussein, in which he claimed not to be doing something while doing just enough behind partially-closed doors to make that claim look false. In retrospect that strategy made a certain amount of sense for Iraq, which after its defeat by Coalition forces in the Gulf War could not have defended against a conventional attack from the larger neighbor it had fought to a standstill a decade earlier. However, it makes little sense for Iran, which already has powerful defenses and a wide array of weapons and allies with which to retaliate in case of an attack by the US, the only power that could seriously threaten it at this point.

If the op-ed in the same issue of the Post is correct about the difficulties of mounting effective deterrence once Iran has the Bomb, then we don't have much time left to exercise the remaining diplomatic and economic options in our playbook. That means assessing the positions of Russia and China with a gimlet eye and determining for ourselves whether they would ever sacrifice their trade and security connections with the Islamic Republic, in order to forestall nuclear developments that they likely see as not aimed against them in any case. As weak as our hand looks now, it will only get worse later. In the context of this countdown, today's relatively high inventories of crude oil and refined products look like a very good thing.

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