Daily Archives: February 2, 2007

Friedman’s Own War in Iran

Posted by Cutler on February 02, 2007
Iran / 2 Comments

In a column back in June 2003 entitled “Because We Could,” Thomas Friedman conceded,

I have to admit that I’ve always been fighting my own war in Iraq.

In other words, Friedman had his own reasons for supporting a US invasion of Iraq but acknowledges that these reasons did not necessarily coincide with the reasons the Bush administration went to war.

Nothing has changed as the Bush administration goes to work on Iran.  Thomas Friedman is fighting his own war in Iran.

In most respects, Friedman’s war in Iran runs parallel to Cheney’s war, as it has in Iraq.

In a previous post, I suggested that Cheney’s Saudi allies might be preparing to launch an oil war on Iran by flooding the market and driving down the price of oil until the Iranian regime either cried uncle (as it seemingly did when the Saudis dropped the price of oil in the late 1980s under Reagan and the late 1990s under Clinton) or collapsed in the face of internal, populist unrest.

Friedman is an ardent supporter of this strategy.  In his February 2, 2007 column–The Oil-Addicted Ayatollahs–Friedman writes:

I’d like to focus on how the Soviet Union was killed, in part, by its addiction to oil, and on how we might get leverage with Iran, based on its own addiction…

By the early 1980s, though, oil prices had started to sink — thanks in part to conservation efforts by the U.S… Oil prices and production kept falling as Mr. Gorbachev tried reforming communism, but by then it was too late…

In 2005, Bloomberg.com reported, Iran’s government earned $44.6 billion from oil and spent $25 billion on subsidies — for housing, jobs, food and 34-cents-a-gallon gasoline — to buy off interest groups. Iran’s current populist president has further increased the goods and services being subsidized.

So if oil prices fall sharply again, Iran’s regime will have to take away many benefits from many Iranians, as the Soviets had to do. For a regime already unpopular with many of its people, that could cause all kinds of problems and give rise to an Ayatollah Gorbachev. We know how that ends. “Just look at the history of the Soviet Union,” Professor Mau said.

In short, the best tool we have for curbing Iran’s influence is not containment or engagement, but getting the price of oil down in the long term with conservation and an alternative-energy strategy. Let’s exploit Iran’s oil addiction by ending ours.

Friedman is not new to this line of thinking.  In an earlier column–“Fill ‘Er Up Dictators“–Friedman wrote:

Bring the price of oil down to $30 and guess what happens: All of Iran’s income goes to subsidies. That would put a terrible strain on Ahmadinejad, who would have to reach out to the world for investment. Trust me, at $30 a barrel, the Holocaust isn’t a myth anymore.

I’m proposing that most of Friedman’s analysis is not like Cheney’s strategy.  It is Cheney’s strategy.

With one exception: Friedman’s special function is to bring the liberals along by aligning the war on Iran to an environmental politics of conservation and alternative energy.  In this, Friedman is fighting his own war on Iran.

It wasn’t conservation that brought down the price of oil in the 1980s or the 1990s.  And Cheney isn’t counting on the Green Party to hit the Iranians.  Cheney is counting on the House of Saud to flood the oil market.

There is a likely relationship between bringing the price of oil down and conservation.  An inverse relationship.

High oil prices make all kinds of energy alternatives (including conservation) viable.  Cheap oil puts the shine back on the old gas guzzling SUV.

Friedman knows that Cheney’s effort to hit the Iranians with low oil prices–the “real” war on Iran–will actually destroy any recent momentum toward energy efficiency, energy alternatives, and conservation.

So Friedman veers off from the Cheney war to fight his own: combine low market prices for oil with high oil taxes on oil consumption.  From “Fill ‘Er Up Dictators”:

[W]e don’t want the price of gasoline to go down in America just when $3 a gallon has started to stimulate large investments in alternative energies…

[W]e still need to make sure, either with a gasoline tax or a tariff on imported oil, that we keep the price at the pump at $3 or more — to stimulate various alternative energy programs, more conservation and a structural shift by car buyers and makers to more fuel-efficient vehicles.

You can propose an oil price crash to hurt Iran.  You can propose an oil price hike in the form of gasoline tax to support energy innovation.  But the two proposals run in opposite directions.

Friedman’s very “real” foreign policy–the one that is closely aligned with Cheney’s foreign policy–demands a collapse in oil prices.  His fantasy oil policy demands the exact opposite.

Friedman’s support for an oil price war on Iran will help rally liberal hawks for Cheney’s war and then leave them high and dry when Friedman is subsequently shocked, shocked to find that the whole affair leads to less conservation and less innovation because, alas, there was no political appetite–least of all from the White House–for his petroleum tax.

If the Saudis drop the price of oil, it may or may not have the predicted consequences in Iran.  But it will certainly diminish the pressure for energy innovation.