Iranian legislators are considering an embargo on oil exports to West Europe, in response to the West European decision to embargo oil imports from Iran. Pardon me for failing to take this seriously as economic warfare: I predict the international oil market will turn out to be fungible (take a drop away here, get a drop from somewhere else). As diplomatic repartee, however, Iran scores!
More important than silly score-keeping, however, is the issue of the long-term implications of mutual economic warfare. In the aftermath of the Recession of 2008-????, which I will not consider overcome until wages and levels of employment and home ownership rates return to their pre-recession situation, it is not absolutely clear that serious economic warfare will harm fewer people than actual military warfare. Nor is it absolutely clear that the world’s politicians can even separate the one from the other. What is clear is this: economic warfare will generate instability. So, expect to see the background global economic problems exacerbated in unpredictable ways, which certainly won’t make life for you or me more pleasant but will equally certainly offer the 1% all sorts of opportunities for a quick buck. (Note that I did not say opportunities to “earn” a quick buck, because we are definitely talking about unearned income here.)
Strategic security is a second area of concern. To the degree that the West promotes economic warfare and Iran responds in kind, Moscow and Beijing will be pushed toward clear-cut decisions about which side they are really on. “Pro-” or “anti-Iran” constitute a categorization that misses the point. Just as Washington’s real complaint is that Iran challenges A) Israel’s right to regional superiority and a special set of rules, and B) Washington’s right to run the global political system and punish all who want to set their own course, the real issue for Moscow and Beijing is also about who makes the rules in the global political system. For those Russians and Chinese who aspire to independence from Washington, Iran is a prize to be relinquished only reluctantly. And Iran is a natural bridge for Chinese and Russians who think anti-American cooperation is the way to achieve national security and independence: China needs Iranian oil, while Russia does not so they can easily cooperate to support Iran as a symbol of the right of states to independence from “Washington rules.”
So in addition to more global economic problems, watch for evidence of an emerging coalition of states rejecting Washington rules, with Iran as the glue between Russia and China (normally, not exactly the best of buddies). Putin must be smiling. He has a much smaller country that any Russian leader has had for a long time, but his strategic situation just seems to be getting better and better, without him lifting his little finger.
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