Twenty years ago, the Soviet Union was on the verge of catastrophe. People who suffered under the repressive rule of the communist regime in Moscow had lost faith in its guiding ideology. Calls for internal reform met with increased internal repression.
Revenue from the energy sector had for years sustained exorbitant military expenditures and propped up the Soviet state. But in the mid-1980s, America's Arab allies flooded the market with cheap Middle Eastern crude. Ronald Reagan's "Saudi strategy" led to a collapse in the price of oil. The authoritarian dictatorship that had been preserved by Siberian oil fields soon collapsed as well.
The Cold War ended. The West had won. Not a shot was fired.
There's a country today that resembles the Soviet Union of the 1980s, one that engages the West in a reckless game of adventurism, where the people have lost faith in a revolutionary ideology, that is resorting to increasingly harsh measures to deal with dissidents and whose regime is sustained solely by oil revenue.
That country is Iran.
President Bush and the major presidential candidates of both parties are correct in saying that a military option for dealing with Iran must remain a contingency for the future. But the demise of Soviet Russia suggests there's another, better way to deal with Iran that avoids military confrontation.
The case of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old Iranian American scholar who has been held in solitary confinement for three months in Tehran's dreaded Evin prison on charges of anti-state activity, is the best-known, but by no means the only, example of a paranoid crackdown by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on real and imagined opponents.
The regime has imprisoned hundreds of thousands of Iranians in recent months for infractions of the Islamic dress code, "hooliganism" and other ethical transgressions. State security and paramilitary groups have detained and beaten university student reformers and labor union leaders.
Iran is in the midst of an execution craze. The Iranian government has put to death more than 150 people this year, including women and juveniles. Most of the executions are public hangings, some broadcast on television. Iran expert Amir Taheri writes that 150 more are scheduled to be hanged or stoned to death in coming weeks.
The heightened repression, televised confessions and executions not so subtle reminders of the lethally coercive powers of the state come amid signs of economic unrest, rising unemployment and inflation and declining oil production. While Iran is still OPEC's second-largest exporter of crude oil, it is a net importer of refined petroleum products, including gasoline. When the government was forced to institute gas rationing in June, rioting broke out.
There's no Saudi option today with regard to Iran. The demand for energy from a robust international economy means that even if OPEC's other producers open their spigots to capacity, the price of oil won't appreciably decline. But domestic discontent and economic fragility point to the mullah's Achilles' heel.
In conjunction with U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolutions that freeze the assets of entities and individuals involved in Iran's illicit nuclear program, Congress is seeking to broaden the economic front against Tehran. The Bush administration has already had success pressuring international financial institutions to cut their ties with Tehran. Proposed congressional measures would place sanctions on European energy companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, France's Total and Spain's Repsol for doing business in Iran.
European governments object that this would hamper efforts to moderate Iranian extremism.
Engagement, as they call it, is, however, a thin veneer for doing business at any price.
The West can deal with Iran's nuclear weapons program and support for international terrorism without ever firing a shot. But those who aren't willing to work the economic lever make a teetering Iran more durable and dangerous than it otherwise ought to be.