In his most recent column--headlined in the Atlanta paper "U.S. oil conservation could take down Iran" (hah!)--Thomas Friedman makes the following claim:
[I]f oil prices fall sharply again, Irans regime would have to take away many benefits from many Iranians, as the Soviets had to do. For a regime already unpopular with many of its people, that could cause all kinds of problems and give rise to an Ayatollah Gorbachev. We know how that ends. “Just look at the history of the Soviet Union,” [President of Russias Academy of National Economy Vladimir] Mau said.
In short, the best tool we have for curbing Irans influence is not containment or engagement, but getting the price of oil down in the long term with conservation and an alternative-energy strategy. Lets exploit Irans oil addiction by ending ours.
Now, dont get me wrong: Im all for conservation and developing alternative energy sources (including, if youre serious about it, ANWR, oil shale, nuclear power, and so on). But conservation in the U.S. (a panacea Friedman has been peddling for some time) is unlikely by itself significantly to drive down the price of oil worldwide.
A better strategy follows from a consideration that, in my view, Friedman got wrong. Heres Friedman:
I mentioned to [Vladimir Mau] that surely the Soviet Union died because oil fell to $10 a barrel shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev took office, not because of anything Ronald Reagan did. Actually, Mau said, it was “high oil prices” that killed the Soviet Union. The sharp rise in oil prices in the 1970s deluded the Kremlin into overextending subsidies at home and invading Afghanistan abroad – and then the collapse in prices in the 80s helped bring down the overextended empire.
Why did oil prices collapse? According to Paul Kengor in
The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Reagan had a hand in the oil price collapse. By persuading the Saudis to ramp up oil production (from 2 million to 9 million barrels a day), the Reagan Administration delivered a body blow to a Soviet economy heavily dependent upon oil exports for hard currency. (To be fair, Kengor cites Peter Schweitzers two books for uncovering this incident.) The Saudis are currently producing roughly 9.5 million barrels a day. They surely fear Iranian designs in the Persian Gulf and beyond. What would it take to get them to increase production yet again, moving, say, to a level of 15 million barrels a day, of which theyre apparently "easily capable?" (Just to be clear, Iran exports roughly 2.5 million barrels a day.) Youd think that a reduction of what we import (currently around 10 million barrels a day) and an increase in Saudi production and exports would place an incredible strain on the Iranian economy. But I doubt that U.S. conservation efforts alone will do it, especially with rising consumption in places like China.
Friedman just cant ride his hobby horse to our rescue in the Persian Gulf. Hes going to have to give more credit to policies championed by Ronald Reagan.