Friedman’s Own War in Iran

Posted by Cutler on February 02, 2007

In a column back in June 2003 enIn 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, 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.

2 Comments to Friedman’s Own War in Iran

  • I think Cheney’s policy on Iran is much simpler — nuke ’em. And in all fairness to Friedman (whom i dislike heartily, he did write this:

    The New York Times
    April 19, 2006
    Op-Ed Columnist
    Iraq II or a Nuclear Iran?

    If these are our only choices, which would you rather have: a
    nuclear-armed Iran or an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites that is
    carried out and sold to the world by the Bush national security team,
    with Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon’s helm?

    I’d rather live with a nuclear Iran.

    While I know the right thing is to keep all our options open, I have
    zero confidence in this administration’s ability to manage a complex
    military strike against Iran, let alone the military and diplomatic

    As someone who believed — and still believes — in the importance of
    getting Iraq right, the level of incompetence that the Bush team has
    displayed in Iraq, and its refusal to acknowledge any mistakes or
    remove those who made them, make it impossible to support this
    administration in any offensive military action against Iran.

    I look at the Bush national security officials much the way I look at
    drunken drivers. I just want to take away their foreign policy
    driver’s licenses for the next three years. Sorry, boys and girls, you
    have to stay home now — or take a taxi. Dial 1-800-NATO-CHARGE-A-RIDE.
    You will not be driving alone. Not with my car.

    If ours were a parliamentary democracy, the entire Bush team would be
    out of office by now, and deservedly so. In Iraq, the president was
    supposed to lead, manage and hold subordinates accountable, and he did
    not. Condoleezza Rice was supposed to coordinate, and she did not.
    Donald Rumsfeld was supposed to listen, and he did not. But ours is
    not a parliamentary system, and while some may feel as if this
    administration’s over, it isn’t. So what to do? We can’t just take a
    foreign policy timeout.

    At a minimum, a change must be made at the Pentagon. Mr. Rumsfeld
    paints himself as a concerned secretary, ready to give our generals in
    Iraq whatever troops they ask for, but they just haven’t asked. This
    is hogwash, but even if the generals didn’t ask, the relevant
    question, Mr. Rumsfeld, is: What did you ask them?

    What did you ask them when you saw the looting, when you saw Saddam’s
    ammo dumps unguarded, when you saw that no one had control of the
    Iraq-Syria border and when you saw that Iraq was so insecure that
    militias were sprouting everywhere? What did you ask the generals? You
    didn’t ask and you didn’t tell, because you never wanted to send more
    troops. You actually thought we could just smash Saddam’s regime and
    leave. Insane.

    So if our choice is another Rummy-led operation on Iran or Iran’s
    going nuclear and our deterring it through classic means, I prefer
    deterrence. A short diplomatic note to Iran’s mullahs will suffice:
    “Gentlemen, should you ever use a nuclear device, or dispense one to
    terrorists, we will destroy every one of your nuclear sites with
    tactical nuclear weapons. If there is any part of this sentence you
    don’t understand, please contact us. Thank you.”

    Do I wish there was a third way? Yes. But the only meaningful third
    way would be to challenge Iran to face-to-face negotiations about all
    the issues that divide us: Iraq, sanctions, nukes. Such diplomacy,
    though, would require two things.

    First, the Bush team would have to make up its mind on something that
    has divided it for five years: Does it want a change of regime in Iran
    or a change of behavior? If it will settle only for regime change,
    then diplomacy has no chance. The Iranians will never negotiate, and
    our allies will be wary of working with us.

    Second, if the Bush team is ready to live with a change in Iran’s
    behavior, diplomacy has a chance — but only if it has allies and a
    credible threat of force to make the Iranians negotiate seriously. The
    only way Iran will strike a grand bargain with the U.S. is if it
    thinks America has the support at home and abroad for a military
    option (or really severe sanctions.)

    The main reason Mr. Rumsfeld should leave now is because we can’t have
    a credible diplomatic or military option vis-à-vis Iran when so many
    people feel, as I do, that in a choice between another Rumsfeld-led
    confrontation and just letting Iran get nukes and living with it, we
    should opt for the latter.

    It may be that learning to live with a nuclear Iran is the wisest
    thing under any circumstances. But it would be nice to have a choice.
    It would be nice to have the option of a diplomatic deal to end Iran’s
    nuclear program — but that will come only with a credible threat of
    force. Yet we will not have the support at home or abroad for that
    threat as long as Don Rumsfeld leads the Pentagon. No one in their
    right mind would follow this man into another confrontation — and that
    is a real strategic liability.

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