The Green Revolution(s)
There has been a lot of worthless chatter about what President Barack Obama should say about Iran’s incipient “Green Revolution.” Sorry, but Iranian reformers don’t need our praise. They need the one thing we could do, without firing a shot, that would truly weaken the Iranian theocrats and force them to unshackle their people. What’s that? End our addiction to the oil that funds Iran’s Islamic dictatorship. Launching a real Green Revolution in America would be the best way to support the “Green Revolution” in Iran.
Oil is the magic potion that enables Iran’s turbaned shahs — “Shah Khamenei” and “Shah Ahmadinejad” — to snub their noses at the world and at many of their own people as well. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behaves like someone who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. By coincidence, he’s been president of Iran during a period of record high oil prices. So, although he presides over an economy that makes nothing the world wants, he can lecture us about how the West is in decline and the Holocaust was a “myth.” Trust me, at $25 a barrel, he won’t be declaring that the Holocaust was a myth anymore.
The Obama team wants to pursue talks with Iran over its nuclear program, no matter who wins there. Fine. But the issue is not talk or no talk. The issue is leverage or no leverage. I love talking to people — especially in the Middle East — on one condition: that we have the leverage. As long as oil prices are high, Iran will have too much leverage and will be able to resist concessions on its nuclear program. With oil at $70 a barrel, our economic sanctions on Iran are an annoyance; at $25, they really hurt.
“People do not change when you tell them they should; they change when they tell themselves they must,” observed Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins University foreign policy specialist. And nothing would tell Iran’s leaders that they must change more than collapsing oil prices.
Mr. Obama has already started some excellent energy-saving initiatives. But we need more. Imposing an immediate “Freedom Tax” of $1 a gallon on gasoline — with rebates to the poor and elderly — would be a triple positive: It would stimulate more investment in renewable energy now; it would stimulate more consumer demand for the energy-efficient vehicles that the reborn General Motors and Chrysler are supposed to make; and, it would reduce our oil imports in a way that would surely affect the global price and weaken every petro-dictator.
That is how — as Bill Maher likes to say — we make the bad guys “fight all of us.”
Sure, it would take time to influence the regime, but, unlike words alone, it will have an impact. I believe in “The First Law of Petro-Politics,” which stipulates that the price of oil and the pace of freedom in petrolist states — states totally dependent on oil exports to run their economies — operate in an inverse correlation. As the price of oil goes down, the pace of freedom goes up because leaders have to educate and unleash their people to innovate and trade. As the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom goes down because leaders just have to stick a pipe in the ground to stay in power.
Exhibit A: the Soviet Union. High oil prices in the 1970s suckered the Kremlin into propping up inefficient industries, overextending subsidies, postponing real economic reforms and invading Afghanistan. When oil prices collapsed to $15 a barrel in the late 1980s, the overextended, petrified Soviet Empire went bust.
In a 2006 speech entitled “The Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia,” Yegor Gaidar, a deputy prime minister of Russia in the early 1990s, noted that “the timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to Sept. 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market.
“During the next six months,” added Gaidar, “oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms. As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.”
If we could bring down the price of oil, the Islamic Republic — which has been buying off its people with subsidies and jobs for years — would face the same pressures. The ayatollahs would either have to start taking subsidies away from Iranians, which would only make the turbaned shahs more unpopular, or empower Iran’s human talent — men and women — and give them free access to the learning, science, trade and collaboration with the rest of the world that would enable this once great Persian civilization to thrive without oil.
Let’s get serious: An American Green Revolution to end our oil addiction — to parallel Iran’s Green Revolution to end its theocracy — helps us, helps them and raises the odds that whoever wins the contest for power, there will have to be a reformer. What are we waiting for?
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Iran's Regime and US Energy Needs
Good piece by Thomas Friedman. I'm not especially crazy about Friedman's glib cutesyness, but here he makes some good points . . . and I have to admire his persistence on the US's need to wean itself off oil.
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