It’s no secret that oil underwrites the Iranian economy, accounting for perhaps 80 percent of the Islamic Republic’s exports. Generations of Iranian officials have failed to diversify the Iranian economy, and so the Islamic Republic remains vulnerable to any fluctuations in the oil market. Certainly, that can be a detriment when the price of oil drops, but it can also mean a windfall when oil rises. One of the key factors which intelligence analysts and Iran watchers consider is at what price the Iranian government calculated their budget. If oil drops below that point, the Islamic Republic might have difficulty making payroll and so might spark a crisis or at least threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz to win a short-term spike in oil prices. When oil prices increase, however, then Iranian leaders have a slush fund with which to play. To what they allocate that extra money says more than any number of diplomatic statements about the direction in which the regime seeks to go.
That is exactly the situation in which the regime finds itself. According to the Iranian Oil Ministry, the average price of oil has been about $103, eleven dollars higher than the level authorities assumed when they set the budget. Back during the administration of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, there was a similar situation: the price of oil skyrocketed while simultaneously the European Union more than doubled its trade with Iran. Rather than apply the hard currency windfall to further Iran’s civilian economy, the regime invested that money into Iran’s then-covert nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Perhaps Khatami was lying when he spoke about a “Dialogue of Civilizations,” or perhaps he simply did not have the power to make the decisions that mattered in the Islamic Republic. Still, today he and his allies—including current President Hassan Rouhani—brag that they should gain credit for Iran’s nuclear program which advanced against the backdrop of the Dialogue.
In my forthcoming book, Dancing with the Devil, a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I have one chapter that examines the history of the politicization of intelligence going back to the Johnson administration. The pattern is clear: administrations often twist intelligence not to achieve a casus belli, but rather to exculpate bad behavior to keep diplomacy alive and avoid any conclusion that an opponent is cheating. Let us hope that President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry—and, more importantly, anyone in the U.S. Congress who takes seriously his or her oversight role—are paying careful attention to how Iran is now spending its money, for that better than any statement by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will show the Islamic Republic’s true intent.