By Dr Gwynne Dyer
Thursday, Jul 5, 2012
There are cynics who argue that the European Union's oil sanctions against Iran, which went into effect on July 1, are a double triumph for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
If you assume (as they do) that the real reason for his hysteria over the alleged threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is to divert international attention from illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, then his strategy has been a spectacular success.
The main reason that Israel's allies are imposing these sanctions is to head off an Israeli military strike against Iran that would destabilize the entire region -- and meanwhile, nobody is talking about the Palestinians.
The wily Netanyahu also gets a bonus, for these sanctions really are going to hurt Iran economically.
Iran is Israel's most implacable enemy, and suddenly its oil exports, and with them its hard currency earnings, are going to be cut in half.
Not a bad return on an Israeli policy that cost nothing except some threatening rhetoric.
To be fair, not everybody is convinced that Netanyahu's wild talk about attacking Iran is just hot air.
A whole parade of senior Israeli military and intelligence officials has gone public to say that there is no imminent threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, and that attacking Iran "pre-emptively" would be deeply stupid.
They clearly think that Netanyahu really is crazy, but many others remain unconvinced.
In any case, the question of the moment is not Netanyahu's strategy. It is whether these sanctions will hurt Iran so much that it will have to give up its cherished program for an independent capacity to enrich nuclear fuel. The answer is: probably not, but they're going to hurt a lot.
On 27 June, an Iranian official admitted that the country's oil exports had already fallen 20% to 30% from the normal level of 2.2 million barrels a day.
By 1 July, the day all the sanctions formally came into effect, lost sales of Iranian oil probably amounted to more than a million barrels a day.
Given that the price of oil is also down, and that Iran is now discounting oil sales heavily to keep its traditional customers from defecting, its ability to pay for imports is going to be severely constrained -- this in a country where the average price of ten basic foods has already risen 70% in three months. Yet there is almost no chance that Iran will back down.
You do not have to assume that the regime really wants to build nuclear weapons to explain its defiance. This is a country that has faced a century of exploitation and humiliation at the hands of the West, and even those Iranians who loathe the regime will close ranks in defence of their nation's right to enrich its own nuclear fuel.
On the other side, President Barack Obama will go on tightening the screws, because he dares not gamble that Netanyahu is only bluffing about attacking Iran, at least until he has won re-election this November.
There is no sign that other oil-exporting countries are going to show solidarity with Iran, and there is enough oil on the market that nobody else is going to go short of the stuff because of the embargo.
So it is going to be a long confrontation, and a miserable experience for the average Iranian. But for the rest of the world, it will just be a news story.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.
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