Flynt appeared on Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, in a segment called “A Gas OPEC in the Making?”, click on the picture above or the link here, to discuss the Gas Exporting Countries’ Forum in Doha. Although the conversation was not focused on Iran per se, Flynt made some points that are relevant to thinking about the Islamic Republic’s strategic position and America’s Iran policy.
One of the many manifestations of internal incoherence in U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic concerns energy: At a time of mounting concern about the adequacy of global oil and gas supplies in coming years (with all that portends for energy prices), Washington continues to insist that the world’s second-largest proven reserves of conventional crude oil (in Iran) and the world’s second-largest proven reserves of natural gas (also in Iran) should stay in the ground, for reasons that have nothing to do with the global energy balance.
–To reinforce the point, the United States forbids American energy companies from doing business in Iran. It also threatens third-country energy companies doing or contemplating doing business in Iran with so-called “secondary sanctions”—almost certainly illegal under the World Trade Organization, though no one has litigated the question yet—and various types of political pressure.
–Furthermore, American policymakers continue to insist that Iran’s massive hydrocarbon reserves should stay in the ground until they decide it is “OK” to monetize them—again, for reasons that have nothing to do with the global energy balance.
As the United States pursues this incoherent—or, as Flynt says on Inside Story, “schizophrenic”—approach, it also continues to insist that it is providing the world with the vital public good of energy security. More specifically, U.S. officials in multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic (including the Obama Administration), have claimed that America’s commitment to ensuring the physical security of hydrocarbon exports from the Persian Gulf—a commitment enshrined in the 1980s Carter Doctrine—is something from which everyone benefits. This includes not just traditional U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, but also major energy-exporting countries and rising powers like China.
However, if one considers some of America’s more provocative strategic initiatives in recent years, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that, notwithstanding these declaratory commitments, Washington often acts in ways that, in fact, limit the flow of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons to international oil and gas markets. (Behind closed doors, this assessment seems to be shared by critical clusters of people in the Middle East and China.) American sanctions policy toward Iran very much follows this pattern. If the United States moved to sanction the Central Bank of Iran, as part of an effort to impose an effective embargo on Iranian oil exports, the genuineness of Washington’s commitment to the free flow of Persian Gulf hydrocarbons as a global public good would be called into even more serious question, see here.
As a senior Japanese diplomat put it to us recently, the United States is really only committed to ensuring the free flow of Saudi oil to international markets. This suggests that America is only interested in providing the “public good” of energy security in ways that fit with its hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East. In the end, just how much of a public good is that?
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett