Wednesday, October 13, 2004

On blockades

In commenting on the second presidential debate, I mentioned in passing a naval blockade as an intermediate option for how the U.S. might "get tough" on Iran: it lies between sanctions and military force. My good neighbor and pal Brian Ulrich writes that a naval blockade wouldn't work without the "cooperation of the international community" and that sanctions would be just as effective as a blockade in the presence of such cooperation.

I disagree on both points. If others nations besides Iran don't like our hypothetical blockade, then all they will be able to do is scream about it at the U.N. and, if they're really mad, hurt themselves and us by refusing to trade with us. No one has a navy that could break our blockade by force. Thus, the blockade would successfully stop naval trade with Iran, even if every other nation in the world was against it. Now it is true that a naval blockade would not stop overland trade with Iran. However, it would still significantly damage Iran's economy. For one thing, Iran mostly exports its oil by sea. As for Brian's second point, even if we could convince every government in the world to refuse to trade with Iran, that would not stop black market trade. A naval blockade of some form would still be needed to enforce the world's embargo on the seas.

I believe a naval blockade would be quite effective at causing Iran economic pain. However, that doesn't mean it's the best option for stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. If we know what buildings to bomb, then destroying Iran's nuclear infrastructure is our best bet. The original reason I thought of a blockade is that I don't think the major world powers will ever agree to stop buying oil from Iran. A blockade would destroy Iran's oil revenues without directly killing anyone or blowing up anything. However, if Iran decides to put up with the economic pain and build a bomb anyway, then we'll be worse off than before the blockade: Iran will be closer to getting nuclear weapons while we'll have paid great economic and diplomatic costs for the blockade. There is no easy solution to this problem, but if force really is to be our last resort, and we really don't want Iran to get the bomb, then a blockade may be in the cards.

For what it's worth, I think the most probable scenario is that we'll still be talking with Europe about sanctions on the day Iran announces it has a nuclear weapon.


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