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The Daily Need

War with Iran? Sanctions, oil embargo and threat to close trade route add to tension


An Iranian missile test. Photo: AP

Is Iran the world’s greatest threat, or a feeble, paranoid regime made weak by economic sanctions?

Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer. Republican candidates for president, for example, have warned of the grave consequences of inaction when it comes to Iran’s rogue nuclear ambitions, comparing the regime to the rise of Nazi Germany. In his victory speech after the Iowa caucus on Tuesday, Mitt Romney mentioned Iran before he mentioned the economy, saying, “We face an extraordinary challenge in America. You know that. And that is, internationally, Iran is about to have nuclear weaponry just down the road here.”

Romney called the Obama administration’s strategy one of “engagement,” parroting, albeit in slightly more genial terms, Rick Santorum’s claim that Obama has pursued a policy of “appeasement” with respect to Iran. As it turns out, however, the economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the Obama administration and the international community may actually be working for the first time in decades, weakening an already insecure regime. The economic turmoil rippling through Iran, experts say, could lead the nation’s leaders either to cooperate with the international community or — if desperation takes hold — to lash out.

There has been widespread public anger in Iran as international sanctions have driven up the cost of basic goods by as much 40 percent. The Iranian currency, the rial, has tumbled against the dollar, and many of the country’s largest patrons on the oil market have either cut back or pledged to discontinue their purchases of crude from Iranian exporters. In a bold move on Thursday, for example, the European Union took a major step toward implementing a full embargo on Iranian oil. China and Japan have also said they plan to cut back on Iranian oil imports. Together, those three countries represent roughly half of Iran’s exports of crude.

Iran is likely to find other customers, or to increase exports to reliable patrons like Turkey, but it will probably have to offer discounts to stay competitive. And with economic turmoil and public anger continuing to grip the country, analysts say, it’s only a matter of time between one of two things happens: Either Iran does some provocative, to flex its muscle, or it reaches out to the international community to broker a deal on its nuclear program in an attempt to ease the economic sanctions. Iran’s leaders have hinted at both strategies.

First, Iran conducted a series of provocative missile tests in the region. Then, its leaders threatened to close off the Strait of Hormuz, a major supply route crucial to global trade and oil exports, with a naval blockade. Britain has called such a move illegal, and British military commanders promised to use force to keep the Strait open if necessary. “There should be no miscalculation by the Iranians about the importance that the international community attaches to keeping the Straits of Hormuz open,” the British defense secretary, Philip Hammond, said Thursday.

On the other hand, the Iranians have also expressed a willingness to return to the negotiating table, offering to resume talks with Western powers in Turkey. The Turkish foreign minister said Thursday that the West, including the U.S., had agreed to negotiate. It’s unclear, though, whether such an olive branch from Iran is sincere, or merely a ploy to further delay international action and buy time for the country’s nuclear program to proceed. As Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment, wrote last year, Iran “tends to thrive in an atmosphere of instability and chaos.”

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