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May 20, 2006

An Old-fashioned Blockade Better Than Bombs?

It is no secret that I'm against letting the current Iranian government get their hands on nuclear weapons. As far as I'm concerned, Iran has been at war with the US since the Teheran embassy invasion back in 1979. We've just been ignoring it, including their role in the Beirut Marine barracks bombing in 1983, in the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, the Revolutionary Guard's attacks on US flagged shipping in the Arabian Gulf in 1987, and their support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. But ignoring a nuclear armed Iran in the hopes that they can be deterred would be, in my view at least, foolhardy.

So far there has been a lot of speculation about the "Begin Option" -- a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear assets like Israel's 1981 destruction of Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reacter. However, there are a number of significant drawbacks to this approach:

  1. We don't know where all of Iran's nuclear facilities are located.

  2. Successful raids against hardened underground targets would require a large number of aircraft sorties and necessitate preemptive attacks to destroy Iran's air force and air defense capabilities, which are widely dispersed.

  3. Destruction of nuclear facilities in or near populated areas would likely produce (possibly significant) civilian casualties and release radioactive materials into the environment.

  4. Any military action against Iran might rally nationalistic elements behind the (generally unpopular) mullah regime.

Of course, the best solution would be for the UNSC to impose tough economic sanctions against Iran. However, this is unlikely, since Russia has important trade ties with Iran and China needs access to Iranian crude. But there still may be another way to impose sanctions on Iran.

Naval Blockade

Maybe I've been reading too many Aubrey/Maturin books, but an old-fashioned naval blockade might be an effective alternative to bombing. (The last US naval blockade was against Cuba during JFK's presidency, and there is some controversy about how good an idea that was.) This blockade could be used to both block oil exports and interdict all imports (possibly other than food and medicines). Stopping Iran's oil exports would cut off the major source of the mullah's revenues, and put great pressure on their already weak economy. (According to the US Energy Information Administration, oil accounts for "around 80-90 percent of total export earnings and 40-50 percent of the government budget.") In addition, preventing imports of machinery and industrial materials would slow development of their nuclear weapons infrastruction. (Iran, oddly enough, imports $4 billion per year in gasoline and other refined products because of a shortage of domestic refinery capacity.)

Blockading Iranian oil exports would, of course, have significant economic impacts throughout the world. Iran currently exports 2.7 million barrels of oil per day (mbd), or approximately 3.2% of world production and consumption. The leading buyers of Iranian crude are Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Italy and France, who collectively account for more than 80% of Iran's oil sales. But they would not be the only ones affected: cutting off Iranian oil could potentially drive the world market price of crude oil to $100 per barrel or more, at least in the short term.

To lessen the international political backlash against these higher prices, the US administration could offer to, say, voluntarily reduce US oil imports by half of the world shortfall, or 1.35 mbd. The US currently imports about 12.4 mbd, so this would be equal to a nearly 11% reduction in US oil imports or a little more than a 6% reduction in US oil demand of nearly 21 mbd. According to the DOE's latest estimate of US energy price short-term elasticities, US oil prices would have to increase by more than 60% to result in a 6% reduction in US oil demand. Alternatively, the US could release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, which currently holds 689 million barrels of crude. This could replace 50% of total Iranian exports for more than 16 months without requiring any increase in domestic prices or decreases in demand. Obviously, smaller oil releases from the SPR could be combined with higher crude prices to allow the US to offset the loss of Iranian exports on world markets for a longer period of time.

The real challenge to imposing a blockade of Iran would be the risk of confronting third party vessels who wanted to challenge the blockade. For example, how would the Chinese government react if US Marines were to board a Chinese flagged tanker to prevent it from entering Iranian waters? Would Russia or China try to challenge the blockade with their Navies? Would the US be willing to risk war with one of these great powers to maintain the pressure on Iran?

I don't have answers to any of these questions, but if the alternatives to a blockade are either accepting an islamic republic armed with nuclear weapons or embarking upon a bloody air war with Iran to destroy their nuclear facilities, I think the idea merits further exploration.

May 20, 2006 at 05:19 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I've been thinking the same thing for a long time. I'm not aware of the controversy about the blockade of Cuba. Seems to me it worked. Recall that the blockade was just the first step in a three-step strategy. It was to be followed, if necessary, by air strikes on the missile sites; and finally, by a full-scale invasion of Cuba with five or six divisions. Because the forces to do all these things were in place, the USSR could not dismiss them as bluffs.

The possibility of further steps, which President Kennedy emphasized several times in his Oct. 22 speech, deterred retaliation by either Cuba or the USSR. That should be remembered now, when so much is being written about what Iran might do in response to a U.S. attack. It does not reflect well on this country that there is so much fretting about that--instead, the U.S. should be making Iran's leaders afraid to retaliate.

The U.S. might gradually move more bombers into forward positions, deploy ships with several hundred Tomahawks to the Arabian Sea. An amphibious force there would present the threat landing Marines to attack targets in Baluchistan, where Tehran's control is very shaky. This would embarrass the regime by showing how weak it is. It might also make calculated leaks (which it would then officially deny) of a vast, prolonged, and extremely destructive air campaign it planned to undertake in case of retaliation.

And the B-2's flown to Diego Garcia or Fairford might include one of the five reportedly dedicated for nuclear missions. Within a day or two of this transfer, a high official like Mr. Rumsfeld might note in an apparently casual way that the U.S. has never had a no-first-use policy. A coordinated series of actions like these could be designed to present Iran with a credible threat that the U.S. would answer retaliation with overwhelming force.

As to China and Russia, neither country is foolish enough to start a war with the U.S. over a temporary interruption of Iran's oil exports. First, cargo ships are very unlikely to challenge warships on their own--in 1962, it was only because Soviet subs were nearby that the freighters approaching Cuba could even consider trying to run the blockade. And neither Russia nor China could put the naval forces in place to lift a blockade.

Also, there is no reason why a new regime in Iran would not, before too long, be once again selling both countries all they were buying before. In the meantime, they could look elsewhere. And don't forget bottom mines, which only the U.S. itself could neutralize. It took only 36 of them in 1972 to close Haiphong for almost a year. The USSR had ships in port at the time, yet it never challenged the blockade.

Posted by: Mike Hollins | Sep 4, 2006 2:50:18 AM

Simple solutions are always best.

Simple Solution: Top President Ahmadinejad
Follow Up: Top a select number of the scientists critical to the nuclear program. The rest will quickly get the message.
And if they don't?

Posted by: John Williams | Sep 14, 2006 10:27:36 AM

I think bombing their power grid, which would effectively stop their nuclear program, is a good first step. Second, a blockade would work to stop the import of gasoline into Iran, which has no refineries and must import 100% of it's gasoline. That would show the mullahs to be the empty sheets they really are. Their "navy" is a hoot, we'd destroy it in short order. They have been shown to have faked several of the recent new weapon demonstrtions.

I'm dittos down with Mike Hollins comment

Posted by: MM | Nov 24, 2006 6:58:44 PM

I agree that a US naval blockade is the most effective way to weaken, if not bring down the terrorist regime in Iran. We shouldnt stop there......With Special Ops forces and/or airborne troops, we should destroy or take over their refineries & other petro facilities, bomb into the stone-age their power grid & other infrastructure. If they dont comply with demands to stop the nuclear program & stop supporting terror-as they obviously have for decades-we keep hitting them from the air & choking them from the sea.

We have been at war with Iran since the embassy takeover in 1980. Unfortunately we invaded the wrong country in Iraq. Our real foe is & has been Iran. We dont need boots on the ground in large numbers, who wants their land anyway? We just them to change their behaviour.

Posted by: Frank Maikisch | Jun 19, 2008 11:55:46 AM

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