By Daniel Luban and Jim Lobe
Last Friday, The New Republic‘s website published a remarkable but thus far little-noticed article by Michael Makovsky and Ed Morse. Makovsky is an alumnus of Doug Feith‘s Office of Special Plans and younger brother of former Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) director David Makovsky, while Morse is a former energy analyst for the now-defunct Lehman Brothers. More to the point, both were key players behind last year’s ultra-hawkish Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) report on Iran’s nuclear program, which Makovsky wrote with Michael Rubin and which was characterized here as a “roadmap to war”. Perhaps even more disconcerting than the report’s actual recommendations was the fact that one of the task force members was Dennis Ross, who is now the State Department’s special envoy in charge of Iran. The fact that Ross signed off on the report, which seemed to take for granted the necessity of military action against Iran, was yet another indication that he was a poor choice to facilitate the Obama administration’s diplomatic outreach to Tehran.
Makovsky and Morse’s new TNR article, however, is notable because it topples one of the pillars on which Iran hawks in the U.S. have based their arguments: the notion that targeted sanctions on the Iranian energy sector would cause serious damage to Iran’s economy and coerce Tehran into abandoning its nuclear program. This was the logic behind the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act (IRPSA), a piece of pending legislation that was introduced in the Senate by the usual suspects (Joe Lieberman, Jon Kyl, and Evan Bayh), and would punish foreign companies that supply Iran with refined petroleum products. AIPAC and the rest of the “Israel lobby” have made the IRPSA the centerpiece of their Iran policy, and the sanctions bill also has the support of the Netanyahu government in Israel. The legislation was the top lobbying priority of last month’s AIPAC conference, and although AIPAC and other hawkish groups are expressing perfunctory support for Obama’s diplomatic outreach, they are also pushing Obama to abandon diplomacy and implement these stepped-up sanctions as soon as possible.
But in their TNR article, Makovsky and Morse candidly admit that energy-sector sanctions in general, and the IRPSA in particular, are “unlikely to have much of an impact” on Tehran. They note that Iran has managed over the past two years to reduce its gasoline imports from 40 percent of domestic consumption — the figure most cited by supporters of the new legislation — to 25 to 30 percent. (Unpublished research by Iran specialists Farideh Farhi, an occasional IPS contributor at the University of Hawaii, and Fereidun Fesharaki, an economist at the East-West Center, bears out this estimate and details how Tehran has recently moved to implement a significantly more efficient energy delivery system.)
Instead, Makovsky and Morse urge the U.S. to implement a “naval blockade to interdict Iran’s gasoline imports, and possibly its oil exports.” Since the authors admit that a naval blockade would be “tantamount to an act of war,” they urge that it be used only “as a last measure short of a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities,” and that the U.S. prepare to mitigate the spike in energy prices that would likely result from Iranian retaliation.
The article essentially says that AIPAC and other components of the lobby — such as Joe Lieberman, who published a new op-ed promoting the bill in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal — are wasting their time and should be pushing stronger measures now. In fairness, the BPC report argued already last September that unilateral sanctions against companies supplying refined products could only be partially effective, and then only in a psychological sense of possibly fueling discontent between the Iranian population and its government. But, of course, if the regime has already reduced its reliance on imported gasoline from 40% to 25% in just two years without great political cost, would even a naval blockade make that much of an actual difference — beyond rallying the people behind the leadership?
In any case, why are Makovsky and Morse undercutting their allies’ case? One explanation is to see their article as part of an increasingly urgent effort — made manifest by the countless stream of op-eds focused on the alleged Iranian nuclear threat that began just before Netanyahu’s recent visit here — by hard-line neo-conservatives here and their friends in Israel to promote a crisis atmosphere and compress the time between diplomatic engagement and military action (whether by the U.S. or Israel).
What will be interesting to see over the coming weeks is whether AIPAC, which is desperate to avoid antagonism with a popular U.S. President, abandons its focus on IRPSA and sanctions, and comes out more overtly for military action — beginning, perhaps, with a blockade.
In one sense, however, it seems unlikely that Makovsky and Morse’s arguments will diminish enthusiasm for IRPSA among its supporters. While they make a convincing case that sanctions will fail to achieve their ostensible goals, it is far from clear that sanctions proponents actually expect them to achieve anything. Rather, sanctions will be imposed with the implicit understanding that they will fail to moderate — and most likely will actually radicalize — Tehran’s behavior. Their real purpose, on this reading, is simply to serve as one stage on the roadmap to war. That way, when sanctions predictably backfire, the U.S. or Israel will be able to go to war while claiming that they “tried everything” short of military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
This sort of thinking is very similar to what Dennis Ross apparently espoused before Obama’s election. (Keep in mind that Ross has had a long-term relationship with WINEP, participated in designing the original “roadmap to war,” and co-authored an about-to-be-released book with Michael Makovsky’s brother David that apparently attacks a key supposition of Obama’s Middle East policy: the notion of “linkage” between the Israel-Palestine and Iran issues.) As Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett recounted in their recent and excellent New York Times op-ed:
In conversations with Mr. Ross before Mr. Obama’s election, we asked him if he really believed that engage-with-pressure would bring concessions from Iran. He forthrightly acknowledged that this was unlikely. Why, then, was he advocating a diplomatic course that, in his judgment, would probably fail? Because, he told us, if Iran continued to expand its nuclear fuel program, at some point in the next couple of years President Bush’s successor would need to order military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. Citing past “diplomacy” would be necessary for that president to claim any military action was legitimate.
It seems quite possible, indeed likely, that sanctions proponents view the IRPSA in a similar light — which is to say that its ineffectiveness is a feature, not a bug. We might reasonably ask whether Ross shares Makovsky and Morse’s view that sanctions won’t work — and if so, whether he cares.