At the dawn of the atomic weapons age, a group of nuclear scientists created a theoretical 'Minutes to Midnight' doomsday clock to signify how close the world was to annihilation. Since the end of the Cold War nobody has paid much attention to it. But it's time to dust it off, and put it back on display. How close to midnight we move the clock's hands depends on what the Obama Administration does in the next few months to halt Iran's nuclear weapons programs.
So far, nothing they've tried has worked. During the campaign Obama promised 'tough, direct diplomacy" to deal with Iran. He offered the 'hand of friendship' three times- in his Inaugural Address, in his address to the Iranian people, and in his Cairo speech - and each time was rebuffed by the Mullahs.
Obama's Plan B was to enlist Russian support to stop Iran's nuclear program, but he came home from Moscow empty-handed.
What's Obama's Plan C? Continue to hope American diplomacy and Russian cooperation will kick in, while Iran moves inexorably toward nuclear weapons? Let Israel attack Iran's nuclear facilities? Accept Iranian atomic weapons as a fait accompli while extending the US nuclear umbrella over Israel and the moderate Arab states?
None of these three are great options. First, there is nothing to indicate Iran or Russia will change their minds in the near term. Why should they? The longer Iran strings the US along, the closer they come to possessing nuclear weapons and becoming the dominant power in the region. Even if Russia were to reverse course and stop aiding Iran's nuclear program, it's not clear how much impact they have at this late date.
The second option, an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, carries a number of risks. It would be logistically complicated. Israeli bombers would have to fly 1000 miles, evading the air defenses of Iraq, Turkey, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, and strike multiple dispersed targets, many of them hardened. At best Israel would set back Iran's nuclear program a few years, and risks setting off further regional conflict. An Israeli attack might put their close relationship with the US in jeopardy, especially were they to attack without prior approval.
Recently Secretary Clinton and others have hinted at a third option: if Iran's nuclear program cannot be stopped, could it be contained? Could we try a Middle East version of Cold War Deterrence where the US pledges nuclear retaliation Iran attacks? This option is problematic as well - is it realistic to think the American public will risk nuclear war to protect Tel Aviv or Riyadh? Similarly, it would be cold comfort to Israel to know that America pledged to annihilate Tehran were it to make good on President Ahmadinejad's pledge to 'wipe Israel off the face of the earth."
Furthermore, if Shiite, Persian Iran is allowed to develop nuclear weapons, what about the Sunni Arab states in region? Wouldn't they conclude they needed nuclear weapons of their own? Since money is no object for many of these Muslim states, a nuclear Iran could set off an arms race - a nuclear arms race - in the most unstable, dangerous part of the world.
Finally, Iran's close ties to terrorist groups give rise to the question of whether Iranian nuclear weapons might find their way into surrogates' hands; surrogates who would have little compunction with restraint.
None of these options are realistic or likely to be effective. But, while there is no silver bullet to stop Iran's nuclear program, there just might be, as Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies puts it, some silver shrapnel - a gasoline embargo.
Iran may be the world's fourth largest oil exporter but, since it doesn't refine that oil, still has to import 40% of its gasoline. That gasoline comes from just five companies - four in Europe and one in India. The ships that deliver that gasoline are insured by a just a handful of companies in Britain, France, Germany and Japan. If we can pressure those refining and insurance companies to stop doing business with Iran, we can get Iran in an economic stranglehold.
Congressional legislation has been introduced by Senators Lieberman and Kyl to that effect - to sanction any company that helps Iran import gasoline. British Petroleum (BP) in anticipation of such a move, last year stopped selling gas to Iran. They figured it was better to miss out on business with Iran than risk losing their American business. If these European, Indian and Japanese companies do what BP did, and stop selling gas to Iran, others will no doubt move into fill the void. But they will charge Iran more for that gas - much more - which means the average Iranian will see higher prices at the pump. That's bound to make Iranian citizens really mad. Just two years ago, when the Mullahs tried to raise gas prices the Iranian people rioted - torching gas stations and taking to the streets.
The one thing we can do, and should do immediately, is cut off their gasoline. It will encourage those Iranian citizens, who recently took to the streets to protest a sham election, to take to the streets again to protest an incompetent government. Then they can change their regime themselves. That's how we helped bring down the Soviet Union, and that's how we can help bring down the Mullahs.