On Iran, West looks for a Plan B
If US allies balk at sanctions, it's harder, but not impossible, to slap Tehran for nuclear aims.
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One reason for the reluctance of Russia and China to act is both countries' high economic stakes in Iran - primarily the importance of Iran's gas and oil exports. China, for example, imports 17 percent of its oil from Iran.Skip to next paragraph
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That is why some experts say the world must deal now with its dependence on Iranian oil. Iran is the world's fourth-largest oil producer.
One idea is to reduce global dependency on oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow passage from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Oman through which all Iranian oil exports pass.
"Until and unless the US-Allied stakes in the strait's threatened closure can be reduced, Iran will literally think and act as if it has us over a barrel," says Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington.
At a cost of about $2 billion, existing pipelines could be refurbished and new pipelines built to take oil from the Saudi Peninsula to non-Gulf ports, Mr. Sokolski says. Today a three-month closure of the strait and a loss of Iranian oil exports would cost the US alone a 4 to 5 percent drop in gross domestic product and cause a 2 percent rise in unemployment. But developing a pipeline alternative for exporting Iraqi and other oil without the strait would reduce the impact to less than 1 percent of GDP, Sokolski says.
And it would be Iran, rather than the global economy, that would suffer from a loss of strait shipping, he adds, with oil making up 80 percent of Iran's exports and oil proceeds paying nearly half of the national budget.
"It's also an indication of what the world is really prepared to do to handle Iran," Sokolski says. "If you're not prepared to do this, you're not going to do very much."
For now, the world is showing it is ready to focus diplomatic efforts on Iran. The sense of urgency about dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions stems largely from concerns about the governing regime in Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hasn't helped by advocating Israel's destruction.
But Hadar of Cato wagers that "even the most open-minded Iranian leader" would fall under nationalist pressures to develop a nuclear capability. With that in mind, some experts advocate dialogue with Iran rather than increasing its isolation.
Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, a member of the German Bundestag's Foreign Affairs Committee who has met with both the Americans and the Iranians, says the international community should be working toward "smart sanctions" against Iran, even as it tries through diplomacy to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program.
But Mr. Guttenberg, who accompanied German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Washington last week, adds that "only the US has anything to offer that is of real interest to the Iranians."
That view suggests another solution to the crisis, one that would require dramatic Nixon-to-China-type discussions between Washington and Tehran.
Recently John Bolton, the US ambassador to the UN, has called on Iran to follow the example of Libya, which in December 2003 gave up its clandestine nuclear weapons programs in a bid to rejoin the global community of nations. But for many experts, such an outcome with Iran would require almost as big a shift in Washington as in Tehran.