Tuesday, August 29, 2006


I try to avoid making political posts, but I couldn't get out of the way of this one.

One main Israeli goal of the recent Lebanon war was to restore its deterrent power. It has been claimed that since many Arabs think that Hizbullah won, thus Israel's deterrence has actually decreased. But of course, Israel does not need to deter the average Arab - the Syrian goat-herder or the taxi driver from Qatar - because no matter how much they hate Israel, they can't do much to effect it. Only governments, militaries, and major terrorist groups need to be deterred from fighting. Specifically, without the support of either Lebanon or Iran, Hizbullah could not continue its activities. It is not a country or people after all, it is just a militia which needs funding and territory from which to operate.

I'm sure few Lebanese, no matter how much they hate Israel, would choose to see the destruction of the last month repeated. Iran, on the other hand, has lost nothing over the past month. And Iran has more influence over Hizbullah than the Lebanese government or society do. Lebanon has probably been deterred, but some other method will have to be found to deter Iran.

Right now Israel is faced with Hizbullah and Hamas on its borders, and the US is fighting an insurgency in Iraq. The common denominator in these destabilizing situations (possibly including Hamas) is Iranian funding. Take away the funding, and the terrorists will not be able to afford bombs or rockets or salaries. And Iran's wealth would seem to be easily attackable.

Since Ahmadinejad came to power and began making blood-curdling threats, nearly all foreign investment has left Iran in a hurry. The economy as a whole has been pretty weak since the Islamic Revolution, but this was the last straw. Apparently the Tehran stock market has all but ceased to exist. Of course, Iran survives because of oil revenue. But take away the oil, and Iran would not be able to fund Hizbullah or Hamas. In fact, the Islamic government - not especially popular in its own country - might even fall altogether. And oil is easily targeted.

If the US or Israel ends up at war with Iran, their first strike should eliminate every source of oil in Iran. This would cripple the country very quickly. Instead of being like Saudi Arabia's, Iran's economy would become more like Afghanistan's. Oil infrastructure could be rebuilt afterwards if the US allowed it, but probably not before then - no funds would be available, and who would be willing to invest? Of course, such a strike would only be possible as part of a major war; if undertaken in peacetime it would almost certainly cause war to begin.

Assuming we do not immediately want to wage war with Iran, there is another possibility. Iranian proxies have effectively used asymmetric warfare and terrorism. To fight Iran, the US or Israel must also begin to use "asymmetric warfare and terrorism". Of course, because we are moral, this does not mean targeting civilians. It does mean targeting oil pipelines and refineries. There should be bands of special agents infiltrating Iran and sabotaging oil infrastructure. If Iranian agents do this in Iraq, we can do it in Iran. To the extent Iran sows trouble in its neighbors, we would sow trouble in Iran.

If Iran tries to blame us, we can simply deny it, or else present conclusive evidence that they do the same and much worse. Even better, we could blame the sabotage on Iranian pro-democracy activists or whomever we choose. Thus, violence against a government would provide publicity and legitimacy for the violent party. Terrorists learned the value of this approach long ago, Yasser Arafat being the first and best example. It's time for the civilized world to apply it in one of the rare circumstances in which it is moral.

Though not as overpowering as a full military strike, organized sabotage can severely constrict a country's oil production capacity, as recent Iraqi experience has shown. For oil-dependant Iran this could quickly become a major strategic problem. Hundreds of millions of dollars would no longer be available to terror organizations around the world, or even to fund Iran's own army. As the country's economy went downhill, the leadership would lose domestic popularity and international prestige and might even be overthrown and replaced by a secular government. At the very least, faced with violence on its own soil, Iran could be intimidated into a following more restrained foreign policy. All this, at virtually no risk, except to a handful of special agents carrying out the attacks. (World oil prices would go up significantly, but that is the inevitable cost of any approach which hopes to change Iranian policy.)

Such an approach would not solve the Iranian nuclear problem. Nuclear weapons are so incredible valuable to a rogue state that their development could continue even as much of the country starves to death. That's what happened in North Korea, and Iran's mindset may be no different. Thus, some sort of formal military action would be necessary even as sabotage to oil infrastructure continues. The good news is that the two strategies are complementary. An attack on nuclear facilities would add to the economic pressure caused by sabotage. And damage to oil would make it harder to continue nuclear production, and much harder to rebuild nuclear facilities after an American attack. If the attack manages to destroy only part of the nuclear program, as many experts predict, then the delay in rebuilding would be even more valuable.

In fact, it seems to me that any vaguely sensible policy regarding Iran - sanctions, limited military action, or all-out war in the future, could be made more effective by surreptitious attacks on the country's oil production, even if carried out by a third party.

Right now no Western country seems to have a good idea of how to deal with Iran and its influence in the Middle East. Each of the available options seems to have significant drawbacks, to the point that Europe, for example, seems to have given up on the situation entirely. A program of sabotage, however, could make each of the options into a much more defensible option. Then a coherent and coordinated policy would be much more likely to emerge. The Iranian threat could be dealt with, and the biggest threat to peace in today's world could be neutralized.

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