Rogues Gone Bust

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

A FEW WEEKS ago, the leaders of Russia, Iran and Venezuela were gloating gleefully that the financial crisis would depose the United States as the world's leading power. Yet as the price of oil dropped below $65 last week -- or less than half its peak price last summer -- it was looking more likely that global economic turmoil would produce a quite different result: the substantial weakening of those countries' challenge to U.S. interests in Europe, the Middle East and Latin America.

Unless oil prices quickly recover, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are likely to face even tougher domestic economic challenges in 2009 than the next U.S. president. According to independent estimates, both countries need an average oil price of up to $95 a barrel to fund the populist subsidies and social programs they have launched in recent years -- not to mention billions of dollars in arms purchases from Russia. Venezuela has been furiously importing food to fill empty shop shelves, while Iran heavily subsidizes domestic fuel. Even if Mr. Chávez and Mr. Ahmadinejad manage to continue those politically sensitive programs, they may find it harder to sponsor foreign clients -- from Hamas and Hezbollah in the Middle East to Cuba's Castro brothers. Already Mr. Chávez has stiffed Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, to whom he had promised a $4 billion oil refinery.

Though somewhat less reliant on oil revenue, Russia may be even worse off, because of its dependence on foreign investment. The Russian stock market has dropped more than 70 percent since last spring, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has had to commit more than $200 billion of the country's reserves to shore up banks. In the past several years, Mr. Putin has several times interrupted energy deliveries to European clients to make political points; he may have less financial leeway to wield that weapon in the future.

Will the decline of revenue lessen the hostility of these regimes toward the United States? There are some intriguing early signs. Russia unexpectedly announced last week that it would not oppose an extension of the U.N. mandate for U.S. troops in Iraq. Though it has refused to rein in its nuclear program, Iran has at least temporarily curbed Hamas, Hezbollah and the "special groups" of Iraq, which in recent months have all but ceased attacks on American and Israeli targets.

Mr. Chávez was notably disturbed when both Barack Obama and John McCain pledged in their final debate to eliminate U.S. dependence on Venezuelan oil within a decade. The caudillo quickly appeared on television with an appeal to the candidates that "instead of saying that they are going to free themselves [of Venezuelan oil], what we have to do is sit down and talk and come to an agreement because we need each other." Is that the "Bolivarian revolutionary" suddenly seeking rapprochement with "the empire?" If so, it may not be the last such offer that the global economic crisis delivers to the next president's desk.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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