There is no doubt that the current Iranian government holds two trump cards. The first is guns, and a trained and disciplined coterie of government enforcers to turn on the dissidents. The second of course is the huge cash flow coming from the sales of oil. As Tom Friedman pointed out in today’s New York Times Op-ed "Bullets and Barrels", the mullahs have been using their oil income to "buy off huge swaths of the population with… subsidized food and gasoline. It’s also used its crude to erect a vast military force-namely the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia-to keep itself in power".
Well there is something that could be done immediately to show the world’s solidarity with the courage of the demonstrators and to show its disgust with the behavior of the Iranian Government. We, the world, can stop buying Iranian oil. Though the United States does not currently import Iranian crude, the fungiblity of oil is such that our government espousing such a boycott would carry a meaningful impact.
Without the income from oil, Iran’s dictatorship will be increasingly vulnerable. It is long past time that the world draws the line on the political and ethical perversion imposed by those who control the supply of oil. It would be a significant step in breaking oil’s grip on our future and an enormous gesture of support to Iran’s brave people.
Overlooking for a moment the fact that such a policy would not at all be “entirely feasible”, try to think about how its consequences might unfold. Among intelligent foreign policy commentators it is generally agreed that bombing Iranian nuclear sites, for example, would primarily have the effect of fomenting nationalistic resentment and other reactionary sentiments among Iranians – why should we think that things would be any different if the weapons of choice took the form of trade policy rather than missiles? Would the Iranian people, faced with increasing unemployment and a set of financial burdens that would be borne much more by them than by their dictatorship, suddenly turn inward and say, Yes, it is our own fault and the fault of our government, or would they be more likely to react most strongly against the international agents who were doing them the most direct harm? And would the Iranian government, for its part, take this as an occasion to back down from its violence and repression, or would it take advantage of the provocation and shout all the more loudly about the Western menace, and thus encourage among its people exactly the attitudes most likely to preserve their hold on power? The usual consequences of sanctions and trade embargos on the lives of the people most directly affected have been well documented; what sort of “solidarity” with the demonstrators would “we, the world” be showing if we were to destroy their livelihoods by refusing the one export that keeps their nation’s economy afloat?
Somehow I suspect that this is precisely the sort of self-aggrandizing “gesture of support” that the brave Iranians would just as well do without.