Commentary Magazine


Topic: Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries

Obama’s Iran Policy Is Producing Arab Fallout

A key concern of those who believe a nuclear Iran would be disastrous is that it would prompt “moderate” Arab states to switch into the Iranian camp — due to fear that America would be unable to protect them against a nuclear-armed neighbor and a desire to align themselves with the “strong horse,” which succeeded in going nuclear despite American opposition, rather than the “weak horse,” which proved unwilling or unable to prevent this development. But it now seems Iran won’t even need to obtain the bomb to make this happen: the growing realization that Washington has no real stomach for stopping it is enough.

This conclusion emerges from two incidents reported by Haaretz Arab affairs analyst Zvi Bar’el. First, Iran’s military exercises in the Persian Gulf this week were observed by “a high-level military delegation from Qatar. It was headed by Admiral Abed al-Rahim al-Janahi, who said his country wants to benefit from the Iranian experience, and that he was planning joint exercises for the two armies.”

This is particularly noteworthy given a fact that Bar’el didn’t mention: U.S. forces used Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base for their campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Qatar originally upgraded the base to lure the U.S. military. Now it’s planning joint military exercises with Iran.

Bar’el also quoted an Al-Arabiya interview with Turki al-Faisal, head of the King Faisal Institute of Global Strategic Studies — and also a former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, a former ambassador to London and Washington, the Saudi foreign minister’s brother, and King Abdullah’s cousin. As such, Bar’el wrote, al-Faisal most likely represents the ruling family’s views.

And what are those views? Hitherto, Riyadh has considered Tehran its chief regional rival. But al-Faisal termed the Gulf states’ ties with Iran “historic ties that are built on interests, blood relationships and proximity.” He also opposed sanctions on Tehran, saying he prefers “dialogue,” and said Israel posed a far greater threat to the region than Iran does.

The prospect of a shift in Saudi Arabia’s allegiance ought to alarm even the Obama administration. Saudi Arabia is not only one of America’s main oil suppliers; it’s also the country Washington relies on to keep world oil markets stable — both by restraining fellow OPEC members from radical production cuts and by upping its own production to compensate for temporary shortfalls elsewhere.

Granted, Riyadh is motivated partly by self-interest: unlike some of its OPEC colleagues, it understands that keeping oil prices too high for too long would do more to spur alternative-energy development than any amount of global-warming hysteria. And since its economy depends on oil exports, encouraging alternative energy is the last thing it wants to do.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia has been generally effective as stabilizer-in-chief of world oil markets and has no plausible replacement in this role. And since the U.S. economy remains highly oil-dependent, a Saudi shift into Iran’s camp would effectively put America’s economy at the mercy of the mullahs in Tehran.

That’s a prospect that ought to keep Washington policymakers awake at night.

A key concern of those who believe a nuclear Iran would be disastrous is that it would prompt “moderate” Arab states to switch into the Iranian camp — due to fear that America would be unable to protect them against a nuclear-armed neighbor and a desire to align themselves with the “strong horse,” which succeeded in going nuclear despite American opposition, rather than the “weak horse,” which proved unwilling or unable to prevent this development. But it now seems Iran won’t even need to obtain the bomb to make this happen: the growing realization that Washington has no real stomach for stopping it is enough.

This conclusion emerges from two incidents reported by Haaretz Arab affairs analyst Zvi Bar’el. First, Iran’s military exercises in the Persian Gulf this week were observed by “a high-level military delegation from Qatar. It was headed by Admiral Abed al-Rahim al-Janahi, who said his country wants to benefit from the Iranian experience, and that he was planning joint exercises for the two armies.”

This is particularly noteworthy given a fact that Bar’el didn’t mention: U.S. forces used Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base for their campaigns in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, Qatar originally upgraded the base to lure the U.S. military. Now it’s planning joint military exercises with Iran.

Bar’el also quoted an Al-Arabiya interview with Turki al-Faisal, head of the King Faisal Institute of Global Strategic Studies — and also a former head of Saudi Arabian intelligence, a former ambassador to London and Washington, the Saudi foreign minister’s brother, and King Abdullah’s cousin. As such, Bar’el wrote, al-Faisal most likely represents the ruling family’s views.

And what are those views? Hitherto, Riyadh has considered Tehran its chief regional rival. But al-Faisal termed the Gulf states’ ties with Iran “historic ties that are built on interests, blood relationships and proximity.” He also opposed sanctions on Tehran, saying he prefers “dialogue,” and said Israel posed a far greater threat to the region than Iran does.

The prospect of a shift in Saudi Arabia’s allegiance ought to alarm even the Obama administration. Saudi Arabia is not only one of America’s main oil suppliers; it’s also the country Washington relies on to keep world oil markets stable — both by restraining fellow OPEC members from radical production cuts and by upping its own production to compensate for temporary shortfalls elsewhere.

Granted, Riyadh is motivated partly by self-interest: unlike some of its OPEC colleagues, it understands that keeping oil prices too high for too long would do more to spur alternative-energy development than any amount of global-warming hysteria. And since its economy depends on oil exports, encouraging alternative energy is the last thing it wants to do.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia has been generally effective as stabilizer-in-chief of world oil markets and has no plausible replacement in this role. And since the U.S. economy remains highly oil-dependent, a Saudi shift into Iran’s camp would effectively put America’s economy at the mercy of the mullahs in Tehran.

That’s a prospect that ought to keep Washington policymakers awake at night.

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Is a Nuclear Iran a Good Thing?

Iran is going nuclear? Don’t worry, be happy. That, at least, is the message of this odd op-ed in the New York Times written by one Adam B. Lowther, identified as an analyst at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Base in Alabama. He claims that a nuclear Iran will deliver all sorts of hidden benefits for the U.S.:

First, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would give the United States an opportunity to finally defeat violent Sunni-Arab terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Here’s why: a nuclear Iran is primarily a threat to its neighbors, not the United States. Thus Washington could offer regional security — primarily, a Middle East nuclear umbrella — in exchange for economic, political and social reforms in the autocratic Arab regimes responsible for breeding the discontent that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He takes this fantasy to another level by imagining that not only will the Arab states be empowered to defeat al-Qaeda — something they already have an interest in doing — but that OPEC will also crack up, the Israelis and Palestinians will settle their differences because they’ll both be so scared of Iranian nukes, U.S. defense exports to the Middle East will increase, the Arab states will bear more of the cost of their own defense, and Iran will become a more responsible actor with nuclear weapons than without them.

Uh, right. All this will happen about the time that Osama bin Laden converts to Zionism. This is the kind of thing that only someone in a university or research institute could possibly believe. In reality, while an Iranian nuclear program may spur some Arab states to draw closer to the U.S., it will also prompt many of them to do more to accommodate Iran as the new “strong horse” in the region and to do more to embrace Islamism to deflect Iran’s appeal to their own people. Iran will certainly be empowered to step up its campaign of terrorism. And many other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and even Syria may go nuclear themselves to counter the Iranian influence. Far from spurring a “renaissance of American influence in the Middle East,” a nuclear Iran will be well-positioned to dominate the entire region.

Lowther’s article is hard to take seriously, but the fact that it appears in our leading newspaper and is written by a government employee is sure to lead many in the conspiracy-mad Middle East to imagine that it represents the views of the U.S. government. That will only further encourage Iran and discourage its neighbors. Not that Iran needs much outside encouragement. Its leaders are plainly convinced that the U.S. is not going to do anything substantive to stop its nuclear program. And they are probably right. But that is hardly cause for celebration.

Iran is going nuclear? Don’t worry, be happy. That, at least, is the message of this odd op-ed in the New York Times written by one Adam B. Lowther, identified as an analyst at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Base in Alabama. He claims that a nuclear Iran will deliver all sorts of hidden benefits for the U.S.:

First, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons would give the United States an opportunity to finally defeat violent Sunni-Arab terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Here’s why: a nuclear Iran is primarily a threat to its neighbors, not the United States. Thus Washington could offer regional security — primarily, a Middle East nuclear umbrella — in exchange for economic, political and social reforms in the autocratic Arab regimes responsible for breeding the discontent that led to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

He takes this fantasy to another level by imagining that not only will the Arab states be empowered to defeat al-Qaeda — something they already have an interest in doing — but that OPEC will also crack up, the Israelis and Palestinians will settle their differences because they’ll both be so scared of Iranian nukes, U.S. defense exports to the Middle East will increase, the Arab states will bear more of the cost of their own defense, and Iran will become a more responsible actor with nuclear weapons than without them.

Uh, right. All this will happen about the time that Osama bin Laden converts to Zionism. This is the kind of thing that only someone in a university or research institute could possibly believe. In reality, while an Iranian nuclear program may spur some Arab states to draw closer to the U.S., it will also prompt many of them to do more to accommodate Iran as the new “strong horse” in the region and to do more to embrace Islamism to deflect Iran’s appeal to their own people. Iran will certainly be empowered to step up its campaign of terrorism. And many other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and even Syria may go nuclear themselves to counter the Iranian influence. Far from spurring a “renaissance of American influence in the Middle East,” a nuclear Iran will be well-positioned to dominate the entire region.

Lowther’s article is hard to take seriously, but the fact that it appears in our leading newspaper and is written by a government employee is sure to lead many in the conspiracy-mad Middle East to imagine that it represents the views of the U.S. government. That will only further encourage Iran and discourage its neighbors. Not that Iran needs much outside encouragement. Its leaders are plainly convinced that the U.S. is not going to do anything substantive to stop its nuclear program. And they are probably right. But that is hardly cause for celebration.

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Appeasing an Arab Autocrat

After yesterday’s magnificent performance in front of the Knesset assailing “the false comfort of appeasement,” President Bush is in Saudi Arabia today to appease an Arab autocrat. Over tea, during meals, at a horse farm, our leader is humbling the United States.

He’s nominally there to celebrate 75 years of relations between Washington and Riyadh, but the real topic is the price of oil, which jumped more than three dollars today to hit a record high of $127.82 a barrel. For the second time this year, Bush has made a trip to the Saudi kingdom, which possesses the world’s largest reserves of this commodity, to ask King Abdullah to pump more of it. For the second time this year the monarch will politely refuse.

That does not mean that the Saudi will not take the offerings Bush has carried with him. The Kingdom will gladly accept American assistance to build a civilian nuclear energy program for the House of Saud, but this is not nearly sufficient to overcome its overwhelming interest in charging as high a price for oil as international markets will bear.

As we have seen, there is a high correlation between the possession of oil and authoritarianism. And at least for the foreseeable future, global economic development will only drive hydrocarbon prices higher. That means, if the world continues along its present course, democracies will become beholden to dictatorships, as today’s meeting in Riyadh suggests. If we want to avoid the spectacle of another president going hat in hand to Saudi Arabia–or worse, Russia, Venezuela, or Iran–then we have only one real option. We will, in short, need to further develop our own energy resources. We don’t need to achieve complete energy independence; we just need to do enough to affect prices at the margin.

So let’s be realistic. Appeasing oil producers, especially those who stand behind the OPEC cartel, is a dead end. The President can go to Riyadh seven more times before his term is out, and he still will not be able to convince the Saudis to drop prices. The solution to the energy crisis is within our own borders–and not in some horse farm in the middle of a faraway desert.

After yesterday’s magnificent performance in front of the Knesset assailing “the false comfort of appeasement,” President Bush is in Saudi Arabia today to appease an Arab autocrat. Over tea, during meals, at a horse farm, our leader is humbling the United States.

He’s nominally there to celebrate 75 years of relations between Washington and Riyadh, but the real topic is the price of oil, which jumped more than three dollars today to hit a record high of $127.82 a barrel. For the second time this year, Bush has made a trip to the Saudi kingdom, which possesses the world’s largest reserves of this commodity, to ask King Abdullah to pump more of it. For the second time this year the monarch will politely refuse.

That does not mean that the Saudi will not take the offerings Bush has carried with him. The Kingdom will gladly accept American assistance to build a civilian nuclear energy program for the House of Saud, but this is not nearly sufficient to overcome its overwhelming interest in charging as high a price for oil as international markets will bear.

As we have seen, there is a high correlation between the possession of oil and authoritarianism. And at least for the foreseeable future, global economic development will only drive hydrocarbon prices higher. That means, if the world continues along its present course, democracies will become beholden to dictatorships, as today’s meeting in Riyadh suggests. If we want to avoid the spectacle of another president going hat in hand to Saudi Arabia–or worse, Russia, Venezuela, or Iran–then we have only one real option. We will, in short, need to further develop our own energy resources. We don’t need to achieve complete energy independence; we just need to do enough to affect prices at the margin.

So let’s be realistic. Appeasing oil producers, especially those who stand behind the OPEC cartel, is a dead end. The President can go to Riyadh seven more times before his term is out, and he still will not be able to convince the Saudis to drop prices. The solution to the energy crisis is within our own borders–and not in some horse farm in the middle of a faraway desert.

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A Key Endorsement

Hillary Clinton snags the endorsement of perhaps the most important Indiana paper, the Indianapolis Star. In an endorsement which is quite useful in spelling out the candidates’ fundamental differences (and mutual problems), two points stand out.

First, the editors write “Clinton offers a clear-eyed view of the way things are.” That is not a bad encapsulation of the difference between her and her opponent. She does believe that there are bad guys in the world impervious to our charms, that politics is a tough and conflict-ridden business, that $75,000 isn’t “rich” if you live in expensive places, and that sometimes it’s best not to be specific about intractable problems (e.g. social security) which in the end are going to get decided by hard bargaining at midnight in a conference room in the Capitol.

This may seem cynical or pedestrian to some, or lack high-mindedness or “vision.” But it is grounded in reality. Perhaps it’s the difference between a battle-worn political animal and a neophyte who is brash enough to say he can change an entire political culture. If Democrats want the former (or at least think their agenda will get further along with the former) then Clinton’s their candidate. If they are think a transformation is possible, then Obama’s their man. (Is it any wonder older voters who have been in the world for awhile like her, while idealistic college kids unscarred by the real world love him?)

Second, the Star praises her “nuance.” That got me thinking as to whether, despite all the rhetoric and fluff, she is actually the candidate more amenable to compromise and reasoned resolutions of sticky problems. Certainly, there’s not much nuance in suing OPEC or mandated health care. And Obama’s rhetorical nods to bipartisanship sound like he’s open to compromise. But there are glimmers now and then suggesting she at least understands that disparate factions and viewpoints must be addressed to deal with issues the public cares about. Her stance on immigration (let illegal aliens report crimes without retribution, imprison or deport those who are criminals, build a fence where needed and deal rationally with 12 million people here) is a case in point. She also knows better than to promise to “throw out all the lobbyists” and “get rid of special interests.”

So, without weighing in on the wisdom of their choice, I think the Star’s conclusion on this particular point is well taken: the nuanced one is not the guy spouting grand visions of a remodeled political system.

Hillary Clinton snags the endorsement of perhaps the most important Indiana paper, the Indianapolis Star. In an endorsement which is quite useful in spelling out the candidates’ fundamental differences (and mutual problems), two points stand out.

First, the editors write “Clinton offers a clear-eyed view of the way things are.” That is not a bad encapsulation of the difference between her and her opponent. She does believe that there are bad guys in the world impervious to our charms, that politics is a tough and conflict-ridden business, that $75,000 isn’t “rich” if you live in expensive places, and that sometimes it’s best not to be specific about intractable problems (e.g. social security) which in the end are going to get decided by hard bargaining at midnight in a conference room in the Capitol.

This may seem cynical or pedestrian to some, or lack high-mindedness or “vision.” But it is grounded in reality. Perhaps it’s the difference between a battle-worn political animal and a neophyte who is brash enough to say he can change an entire political culture. If Democrats want the former (or at least think their agenda will get further along with the former) then Clinton’s their candidate. If they are think a transformation is possible, then Obama’s their man. (Is it any wonder older voters who have been in the world for awhile like her, while idealistic college kids unscarred by the real world love him?)

Second, the Star praises her “nuance.” That got me thinking as to whether, despite all the rhetoric and fluff, she is actually the candidate more amenable to compromise and reasoned resolutions of sticky problems. Certainly, there’s not much nuance in suing OPEC or mandated health care. And Obama’s rhetorical nods to bipartisanship sound like he’s open to compromise. But there are glimmers now and then suggesting she at least understands that disparate factions and viewpoints must be addressed to deal with issues the public cares about. Her stance on immigration (let illegal aliens report crimes without retribution, imprison or deport those who are criminals, build a fence where needed and deal rationally with 12 million people here) is a case in point. She also knows better than to promise to “throw out all the lobbyists” and “get rid of special interests.”

So, without weighing in on the wisdom of their choice, I think the Star’s conclusion on this particular point is well taken: the nuanced one is not the guy spouting grand visions of a remodeled political system.

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Hillary On The Factor

Hillary Clinton went on Bill O’Reilly’s Factor. The first half of the interview can be seen here and here. If you grade on substance, she’s fairly awful. She going to sue OPEC through the World Trade Organization and tax oil companies to bring down gas prices. (Honest. No, it’s not clear what happens if OPEC doesn’t answer the first set of written discovery requests.) She’s raising income taxes and she’s not willing to come clean on how much her health care plan will cost.

But on style it’s hard not to gape at her tour de force – pugnacious, funny (she says with a twinkle in her eye that she’d expect nothing but “fair and balanced” coverage from Fox), quick on her feet and, within the confines of her shtick, somewhat candid. She’s a phony, but sort of a real phony.

For Democrats and independents who buy into the populist economics and think someone really is going to have to go fight the mean Republicans and the big bad insurance and oil companies, it’s hard to imagine a feistier combatant.

Republicans have long worried that Barack Obama would be a soothing, deceptively alluring figure in a general election. I think what we saw on O’Reilly was that if she makes it that far, Clinton will be a different, but perhaps equally challenging, figure. Somewhere along the way she learned to articulate a nostalgic, even patriotic vision (“Let’s go back to the 50′s and 60′s,” she says) in which, she says, the middle class isn’t under seige. You can argue with her facts, but the message is clear, the audience specific, and the patter fairly effective. One wonders how skilled John McCain will be in arguing with her about health care and the relative merits of the Clinton and Bush economies. Part 2 of the interview will air tonight.

Hillary Clinton went on Bill O’Reilly’s Factor. The first half of the interview can be seen here and here. If you grade on substance, she’s fairly awful. She going to sue OPEC through the World Trade Organization and tax oil companies to bring down gas prices. (Honest. No, it’s not clear what happens if OPEC doesn’t answer the first set of written discovery requests.) She’s raising income taxes and she’s not willing to come clean on how much her health care plan will cost.

But on style it’s hard not to gape at her tour de force – pugnacious, funny (she says with a twinkle in her eye that she’d expect nothing but “fair and balanced” coverage from Fox), quick on her feet and, within the confines of her shtick, somewhat candid. She’s a phony, but sort of a real phony.

For Democrats and independents who buy into the populist economics and think someone really is going to have to go fight the mean Republicans and the big bad insurance and oil companies, it’s hard to imagine a feistier combatant.

Republicans have long worried that Barack Obama would be a soothing, deceptively alluring figure in a general election. I think what we saw on O’Reilly was that if she makes it that far, Clinton will be a different, but perhaps equally challenging, figure. Somewhere along the way she learned to articulate a nostalgic, even patriotic vision (“Let’s go back to the 50′s and 60′s,” she says) in which, she says, the middle class isn’t under seige. You can argue with her facts, but the message is clear, the audience specific, and the patter fairly effective. One wonders how skilled John McCain will be in arguing with her about health care and the relative merits of the Clinton and Bush economies. Part 2 of the interview will air tonight.

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Where’s the Middle East?

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

Few magazine covers are more iconic than Time’s annual “Person of the Year” issue, which commemorates the individual who has had the greatest impact on world events, for better or worse. This year’s choice, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a decent one. Putin has reasserted Russia’s role in international affairs—Russia has played a frustrating role vis-à-vis Iran, and is vying for an increased role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking—while his domestic maneuvering has all but insured that he will be named prime minister upon leaving the presidency next year. For better or worse, Putin has been critically influential in world affairs, and will likely remain so for years to come.

But beyond selecting a “Person of the Year,” Time usually names a few runners-up, as well as roughly 15-30 “people who mattered.” In years past, Middle Eastern leaders have almost always fallen into these subsidiary categories. Last year—following Iran’s stubborn pursuit of nuclear weapons and critical support for terrorism in Iraq, Lebanon, and Gaza—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was a runner-up. Ahmadinejad was also named a “person who mattered” in 2005, shortly after being elected. Meanwhile, Ariel Sharon shared the distinction of “person who mattered” with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in 2004, and with Hamas in 2002; Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat “mattered” in 2000; and Jordan’s Queen Noor “mattered” in 1999. If we factor in Time’s reported decision to forgo Osama Bin Laden as “Person of the Year” in 2001 in favor of Rudy Giuliani, and accept that 2003’s selection of the American soldier as “Person of the Year” was an explicitly Middle East-relevant story, 2007 is the first year in nearly a decade in which the Middle East has been entirely shutout.

While we should avoid placing too much weight on these distinctions, the absence of Middle Eastern leaders from the list of “people who mattered” suggests that the Middle East is sorely lacking in compelling figures. Consider this remarkably uninspiring roster: Ehud Olmert (severely unpopular in Israel); Mahmoud Abbas (weak and unpopular); Fouad Siniora (fears assassination and lives in his parliamentary office); King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (biggest accomplishment: brokering the failed—and costly—Hamas-Fatah truce); Hosni Mubarak (renewed crackdowns against liberal dissidents); King Abdullah II of Jordan (M.I.A.); and Bashar al-Assad (passively sticking with Iran). Indeed, none of these leaders inspires much excitement, for better or worse.

Of course, the absence of newsworthy Middle Eastern leaders is not necessarily a bad thing. One can hardly be too nostalgic for Yasir Arafat’s shared “Man of the Year” designation in 1993, or King Faisal’s “Man of the Year” designation in 1974 during the OPEC price hikes. Still, the absence of a single compelling Middle Eastern leader suggests that the region is directionless. In this way, Time’s failure to recognize the Middle East speaks volumes.

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“United Like a Single Fist”

Yesterday, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez met with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran after both of them had attended the OPEC summit in Riyadh over the weekend. In the Iranian capital they continued their attack on the dollar that they had started a few days earlier.

In Saudi Arabia, the Iranian president, backed by Chavez, had wanted the thirteen-member cartel to price oil in a currency other than the American unit—such as the euro—or at least with reference to a basket of currencies. Saudi King Abdullah blocked that idea, but only for the present. The summit’s final declaration contains vague language about “financial cooperation” among the group’s members, and Iran’s oil minister later said that the words meant a reconsideration of acceptance of the dollar.

For now, America’s allies inside OPEC can hold off Ahmadinejad and Chavez because the price of oil has skyrocketed as the greenback has fallen. Yet continued erosion of the dollar will strengthen their case that our currency is “worthless paper”—as Ahmadinejad said in Riyadh—and should they prevail, they will have gone a long way toward dethroning it as the world’s reserve currency. The menacing pair—“united like a single fist” in Chavez’s words—knows what’s at stake. “God willing, with the fall of the dollar, the deviant U.S. imperialism will fall as soon as possible too,” the Venezuelan leader said after his meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran.

There have been bouts of dollar selling in the past, but our currency has nonetheless retained its central role in the financial markets. Yet at some point, people will stop accepting the buck as its value decreases. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen made headlines at the beginning of this month when her sister-manager revealed that she demanded to be paid in almost any currency other than the dollar—even when working for a U.S. company. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has repeatedly reaffirmed America’s strong-dollar policy, but it’s clear the Bush administration does not intend to do anything to stop what looks like a free fall.

The President’s apparent lack of concern is a mistake of enormous proportions: all his international problems will become immeasurably harder when no one wants our currency and American financial sanctions become meaningless. Ahmadinejad and Chavez are normally full of bluster, but they have now found a tactic that can injure the United States. That’s because irresponsible economic policies over the course of past administrations have essentially handed our adversaries in Iran and Venezuela a weapon.

Yesterday, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez met with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran after both of them had attended the OPEC summit in Riyadh over the weekend. In the Iranian capital they continued their attack on the dollar that they had started a few days earlier.

In Saudi Arabia, the Iranian president, backed by Chavez, had wanted the thirteen-member cartel to price oil in a currency other than the American unit—such as the euro—or at least with reference to a basket of currencies. Saudi King Abdullah blocked that idea, but only for the present. The summit’s final declaration contains vague language about “financial cooperation” among the group’s members, and Iran’s oil minister later said that the words meant a reconsideration of acceptance of the dollar.

For now, America’s allies inside OPEC can hold off Ahmadinejad and Chavez because the price of oil has skyrocketed as the greenback has fallen. Yet continued erosion of the dollar will strengthen their case that our currency is “worthless paper”—as Ahmadinejad said in Riyadh—and should they prevail, they will have gone a long way toward dethroning it as the world’s reserve currency. The menacing pair—“united like a single fist” in Chavez’s words—knows what’s at stake. “God willing, with the fall of the dollar, the deviant U.S. imperialism will fall as soon as possible too,” the Venezuelan leader said after his meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran.

There have been bouts of dollar selling in the past, but our currency has nonetheless retained its central role in the financial markets. Yet at some point, people will stop accepting the buck as its value decreases. Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen made headlines at the beginning of this month when her sister-manager revealed that she demanded to be paid in almost any currency other than the dollar—even when working for a U.S. company. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson has repeatedly reaffirmed America’s strong-dollar policy, but it’s clear the Bush administration does not intend to do anything to stop what looks like a free fall.

The President’s apparent lack of concern is a mistake of enormous proportions: all his international problems will become immeasurably harder when no one wants our currency and American financial sanctions become meaningless. Ahmadinejad and Chavez are normally full of bluster, but they have now found a tactic that can injure the United States. That’s because irresponsible economic policies over the course of past administrations have essentially handed our adversaries in Iran and Venezuela a weapon.

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Bill Richardson’s Remarkable Plan to Disarm Iran

Bill Richardson is not among the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates. But he is notable for having more foreign-policy experience than the leading three: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. He served as UN ambassador from 1997 to 1998 and then went on to head the Department of Energy, where he dealt not only with the problems posed by OPEC and our dependence on imported oil, but also with the dependability and security of America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

With a two-theater war under way, and the menace of Iran’s nuclear program looming over the horizon, is Richardson worth a second look? Is he made of presidential timber, or perhaps vice-presidential timber?

We got a glimpse of him this past weekend on Face the Nation, where Bob Schieffer questioned him on what to do about Iran.

Richardson was adamant that he would not have invited the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University and is “glad we didn’t let him go to Ground Zero.” He expressed determination to stop Iranian interference with the American war effort in Iraq: “We cannot have them, obviously, continue helping the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards in Iraq.” And he is also determined to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring the most fearsome weapon known to man: “we cannot have Iran have nuclear weapons.”

This is tough talk. What are Richardson’s means for realizing these laudable objectives? The way to accomplish them, he told Schieffer, “perhaps is a carrot-and-stick policy.”

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Bill Richardson is not among the top tier of Democratic presidential candidates. But he is notable for having more foreign-policy experience than the leading three: John Edwards, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. He served as UN ambassador from 1997 to 1998 and then went on to head the Department of Energy, where he dealt not only with the problems posed by OPEC and our dependence on imported oil, but also with the dependability and security of America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons.

With a two-theater war under way, and the menace of Iran’s nuclear program looming over the horizon, is Richardson worth a second look? Is he made of presidential timber, or perhaps vice-presidential timber?

We got a glimpse of him this past weekend on Face the Nation, where Bob Schieffer questioned him on what to do about Iran.

Richardson was adamant that he would not have invited the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia University and is “glad we didn’t let him go to Ground Zero.” He expressed determination to stop Iranian interference with the American war effort in Iraq: “We cannot have them, obviously, continue helping the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards in Iraq.” And he is also determined to prevent the ayatollahs from acquiring the most fearsome weapon known to man: “we cannot have Iran have nuclear weapons.”

This is tough talk. What are Richardson’s means for realizing these laudable objectives? The way to accomplish them, he told Schieffer, “perhaps is a carrot-and-stick policy.”

“Perhaps” a carrot-and-stick policy? Was the tentativeness revealed here just a verbal slip? To answer that, it helps to know just what are Richardson’s carrots and what are his sticks.

To begin with carrot number one, Richardson would not have voted–“as I regret Senator Clinton did”–for a Senate resolution designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorists. “This was provocative. It didn’t need to happen.”

Carrot number two would be to cease “calling [the Iranians] names” and “labeling them terrorists,” which is “just making the situation worse and enflaming the Muslim world.”

Carrot number three would be to rule out a military strike against the facilities housing Iran’s nuclear-weapons program. Such a move, said Richardson, would be

enormously unwise, because it would strengthen the hard-liners in Iran like Ahmadinejad. It would embolden those elements in Iran that want to provoke a war against the United States. It would further inflame the Muslim world that is already very strongly against us as we’re trying to resolve the situation in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It would be a disastrous event.

Carrot number four would be to “engage Iran,” something that has to be done with tact. Thus, “I would go around Ahmadinejad. . . . I would go to the moderate Islamic clerics. I would talk to students. I would talk to university professors, business leaders. Forty percent of the vote in Iran in that last presidential election went to a moderate candidate.” Richardson was referring here to the ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who won 35 percent of the vote in a run-off in 2005, has been implicated as an organizer of Iranian terrorism abroad, and is known as one of the fathers of the Iranian nuclear-weapons effort. (It is true that, by comparison with Ahmadinejad, Rafsanjani was indeed the moderate candidate.)

Carrot number five is to help Iran transform its atomic weapons into a peaceful energy program: “we can work with them to develop a civilian nuclear-fuel cycle, perhaps with the Russians.”

Carrot number six would be to withdraw all American forces from neighboring Iraq within eight months of assuming office and then invite Iran to take part in a “reconciliation effort” that would involve an “all-Muslim peacekeeping force headed by the UN.”

Now for Richardson’s sticks. There is none. If this man is presidential or vice-presidential timber, we are talking of balsa wood.

To watch the tough-talking Richardson in action, click below.

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