The attack on the British embassy in Tehran came just days after the Iranian “parliament” voted to expel the British ambassador, and therefore reeks of official complicity. The attack—complete with an invasion of the grounds, looting, and a brief hostage-taking—is an always useful reminder of the nature of the regime in Tehran. These are thugs, whatever their religious titles.
As every nation will condemn this assault on an embassy (the Russians were very quick to do so, for example) we should take advantage of the event. Just a week ago, President Sarkozy of France said, “as Iran steps up its nuclear program, refuses negotiation and condemns its people to isolation, France advocates new sanctions on an unprecedented scale to convince Iran that it must negotiate….France therefore proposes to the European Union and its member states, the United States, Japan and Canada and other willing countries to take the decision to immediately freeze the assets of the Iranian central bank [and] stop purchases of Iranian oil.”
The French proposal is practical. Iran exports about 2.2 million barrels a day. If one assumes that half of it will still be delivered (mostly to Asia), the world oil market can easily absorb the loss of roughly a million barrels a day. It did so easily enough when Libya’s exports went from 1.3 million barrels a day in January to almost zero. With Libya returning to the market (exporting 350,000 barrels per day now) and spare Saudi capacity available, exclusion of Iranian exports would not create a crisis.
The United States should get behind this proposal immediately, and seek to persuade the UK, Canada, and Japan to join such U.S.-EU action. These steps would strike a hard blow at the Iranian economy, even if there is leakage because the Chinese keep buying Iranian oil. The hope would be that the Iranian economy is sufficiently hurt to cause social unrest. Optimists (I am not one) believe this would perhaps lead the ayatollahs to make a nuclear deal; at the least, it would harm the regime and could spark labor protests and a revival of the Green Movement. This action against an embassy, and any actions by the regime to put down protests, must as well be used to make Iran more of a pariah state. It richly deserves that status and the Western countries have been far too slow to push it into that corner in every possible international body. Of course, sabotage of the Iranian nuclear program should continue and appears to be effective at least in slowing down progress toward the bomb.
The Obama administration did not respond to Sarkozy’s proposal. Cynics (I am one) will wonder if the administration just doesn’t want any trouble with Iran in an upcoming election year. This would be extremely foolish and lose what it ought to see as a final chance to avoid the choice between an Iranian bomb and bombing Iran. In this embassy attack the ayatollahs have given us a club, and we should use it to beat them. Sarkozy had the right idea.