It's time for U.S. to consider targeting Iran's gas imports

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

THURSDAY'S EVENTS in Iran looked like a defeat for the opposition green movement -- and for the cause of stopping the regime's nuclear weapons program. A massive deployment of force and an information blockade that included the interruption of the telephone system and satellite broadcasts appeared to prevent large opposition crowds from gathering on the anniversary of the 1979 revolution. The government, meanwhile, assembled a large audience for one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's boasting rants.

The green movement is far from dead; its long-term triumph remains more likely than not. But if the regime of Mr. Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gains confidence from the week's events, it will be even less likely to respond to Western offers of a deal to end its race for a bomb. Instead it will press ahead with provocations, like the stepped-up enrichment of uranium that Mr. Ahmadinejad bragged of. That means the Obama administration will need to look for new ways to push back.

The administration has take some important steps in recent days. The Treasury Department brought new U.S. sanctions against companies and individuals associated with the Revolutionary Guard, and administration spokesmen have continued to speak out forcefully against the regime's abuses. But more should be done to help the opposition. For example, the Internet and satellite television blockages might be overcome with more U.S. support for private groups working to counter the regime's jamming and firewalls.

A rethinking of the administration's sanctions strategy may also be in order. In addition to the Treasury measures, the State Department has been pursuing a new sanctions resolution at the U.N. Security Council -- the fourth -- that also would be aimed at the Revolutionary Guard. But there's little indication that China's resistance to the measure can be overcome unless most of the resolution's teeth are removed. During his presidential campaign, President Obama spoke about much tougher measures -- including steps to prevent Iran from importing gasoline and other refined products. The administration has since edged away from that idea, partly because of the difficulty of winning support from other governments and partly out of concern that it would persuade average Iranians to rally for rather than against their government.

Yet for every expert who argues that a shortage of gasoline would somehow help Mr. Ahmadinejad, there is one who believes it will deepen popular rejection of the regime. France, among other European governments, has been talking tough about the need for sanctions that bite; a U.S.-backed gasoline embargo would put that resolve to the test.

At a minimum, Mr. Obama should be prepared to welcome and sign into law legislation, now in a congressional conference committee, that would authorize U.S. sanctions against firms that sell gasoline to Iran or provide tankers and insurance. Secondary sanctions are a blunt instrument, especially when directed against companies from friendly countries. But the threat of them might be needed to prod the Security Council or an ad-hoc Western alliance into taking steps that will break the Iranian regime's dangerous gathering of momentum.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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