I've always been dubious about Barack Obama's offer to negotiate with Iran — not because I didn't believe that it was the right strategy, but because I didn't believe we had enough leverage to succeed. And negotiating in the Middle East without leverage is like playing baseball without a bat.
Well, if Obama does win the presidency, my gut tells me that he's going to get a chance to negotiate with the Iranians — with a bat in his hand.
Have you seen the reports that Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is suffering from exhaustion? It's probably because he is not sleeping at night. I know why. Watching oil prices fall from $147 a barrel to $57 is not like counting sheep. It's the kind of thing that gives an Iranian autocrat bad dreams.
After all, it was the collapse of global oil prices in the early 1990s that brought down the Soviet Union. And Iran today is looking very Soviet to me.
As Vladimir Mau, president of Russia's Academy of National Economy, pointed out to me, it was the long period of high oil prices followed by sharply lower oil prices that killed the Soviet Union. The spike in oil prices in the 1970s deluded the Kremlin into overextending subsidies at home and invading Afghanistan abroad — and then the collapse in prices in the '80s helped bring down that overextended empire.
(Incidentally, this was exactly what happened to the shah of Iran: 1) Sudden surge in oil prices. 2) Delusions of grandeur. 3) Sudden contraction of oil prices. 4) Dramatic downfall. 5) You're toast.)
Under Ahmadinejad, Iran's mullahs have gone on a domestic subsidy binge — using oil money to cushion the prices of food, gasoline, mortgages and to create jobs — to buy off the Iranian people. But the one thing Ahmadinejad couldn't buy was real economic growth. Iran today has 30 percent inflation, 11 percent unemployment and huge underemployment with thousands of young college grads, engineers and architects selling pizzas and driving taxis. And now with oil prices falling, Iran — just like the Soviet Union — is going to have to pull back spending across the board. Fasten your seat belts.
The U.N. has imposed three rounds of sanctions against Iran since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 because of Iran's refusal to halt uranium enrichment. But high oil prices minimized those sanctions; collapsing oil prices will now magnify those sanctions. If prices stay low, there is a good chance Iran will be open to negotiating over its nuclear program with the next U.S. president.
That is a good thing because Iran also funds Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and the anti-U.S. Shiites in Iraq. If America wants to get out of Iraq and leave behind a decent outcome, plus break the deadlocks in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, it needs to end the cold war with Iran. Possible? I don't know, but the collapse of oil prices should give us a shot.
But let's use our leverage smartly and not exaggerate Iran's strength. Just as I believe that we should drop the reward for the capture of Osama bin Laden — from $50 million to one penny, plus an autographed picture of Dick Cheney — we need to deflate the Iranian mullahs as well. Let them chase us.
Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, compares it to bargaining for a Persian carpet in Tehran. "When you go inside the carpet shop, the first thing you are supposed to do is feign disinterest," he explains. "The last thing you want to suggest is 'We are not leaving without that carpet.' 'Well,' the dealer will say, 'if you feel so strongly about it ...' "
The other lesson from the carpet bazaar, says Sadjadpour, "is that there is never a price tag on any carpet. The dealer is not looking for a fixed price, but the highest price he can get — and the Iran price is constantly fluctuating depending on the price of oil." Let's now use that to our advantage.
Barack Hussein Obama would present another challenge for Iran's mullahs. Their whole rationale for being is that they are resisting a hegemonic American power that wants to keep everyone down. Suddenly, next week, Iranians may look up and see that the country their leaders call "The Great Satan" has just elected "a guy whose middle name is the central figure in Shiite Islam — Hussein — and whose last name — Obama — when transliterated into Farsi, means 'He is with us,' " said Sadjadpour.
Iran is ripe for deflating. Its power was inflated by the price of oil and the popularity of its leader, who was cheered simply because he was willing to poke America with a stick. But as a real nation-building enterprise, the Islamic Revolution in Iran has been an abject failure.
"When you ask young Arabs which leaders in the region they most admire," said Sadjadpour, they will usually answer the leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. "When you ask them where in the Middle East would you most like to live," he added, "the answer is usually socially open places like Dubai or Beirut. The Islamic Republic of Iran is never in the top 10."
First published in the New York Times.
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