Flames erupted across Tehran today as angry drivers set filling stations on fire. Could this be the start of one of the most important and most unanticipated news stories of the year?
A little more than a month ago, I was out in Orange County, California and had a pleasant dinner meeting with some of the nation’s leading Iran analysts. They were all angry about the White House’s highly provocative stance with respect to Iran. What, exactly, is the matter with it? “The Iranian populace is the most pro-American bloc in the region. They’re our prime asset. Any policy that starts with shattering our prime asset – that goodwill – is criminally stupid. A smart policy towards Iran would begin by understanding the inherent weaknesses of the mullahs and the Ahmadinejad government and would exploit them effectively. In the end, America doesn’t have to bring them down – the Iranian people will be delighted to do it. And it will be a hell of a lot cheaper and more predictable than launching an air war on Iran. And the long-term prospects are much better.”
I’m no Iran expert. But it made sense to me. They also said that the threats and cajoling coming from the White House made it difficult for Iranian opposition to move and built support from within around the government. But every American understands those dynamics. We lived through them in the months after 9/11.
But first some background: Everybody knows that Iran is a big oil producer. Iran possesses the world’s fourth-largest petroleum reserves, obviating the need for extra energy production. Right? Well, Reuters provides a story today that questions this perception: Iran has announced on state television that it will begin gasoline rationing, with a limit of 100 liters (26 gallons) of gasoline a month alloted for each automobile. Despite massive oil reserves, limited refining capacities continue to hamper Iran’s ability to supply its populace with heavily-subsidized gas. Add to this the key misery indicators: unemployment and inflation, both running at about 20%. No government enjoys broad popular support with these sorts of numbers. And this may explain why Iranian leaders like to talk about threats from abroad and the need to “circle the wagons” to support the government. Without the foreign threat, they have little to justify their continued governance.
The saber-rattling that the Bush administration has done lately, is Ahmadinejad’s good news. It may be the only thing keeping him afloat. Following the rationing announcement, several gas stations in Tehran were mobbed and burnt, and rioting took place at several locations throughout the city. Iranians are wondering what happened to Ahmadinejad’s campaign promises about spreading the benefits of Iran’s rich oil possessions – they seem to ring bit hollow on less than a gallon of gas a day.
All of this also makes the current hostage scandal a bit easier to understand. Four Americans have been seized and their dealings with dissident or opposition-oriented groups are used to stigmatize and silence likely sources of opposition to Ahmadinejad.
On the other hand, since the weekend, the Iranian press’s anti-American and anti-prisoner hysteria has suddenly gone silent. What’s up? A European diplomat is suggesting to us that Ahmadinejad may be prepared to release one of the four American hostages it currently holds. This is the sort of report that one can’t rely on, of course, but we can always hope there’s something to it.
Evan Magruder contributed to this post.