April 20, 2010 | Quote

Ex-CIA Boss Urges Curbs on Oil Firms Supplying Iran

A former CIA director says companies that sell Iran refined petroleum products must be punished as the country gets closer to making a nuclear bomb.

“Any kind of dealing with companies such as Shell and Vitol, that are chiefly involved in sending gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran, should be cut off,” former Central Intelligence Agency Director James Woolsey said in a phone interview from Harwood, Maryland, on Sept. 2. He said sanctions at the moment are “watered down.” Iran hasn’t enough refining capacity and imports 40 percent of its gasoline needs.

“They should basically choose between doing business with Iran and doing business with the U.S.” and whatever other countries that would be willing to sign on to such sanctions, Woolsey said. Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Vitol Group supply the U.S. Department of Energy.

The U.S., China, Russia, France and the U.K, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany, met Sept. 2 to discuss the offer for direct talks with Iran. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said July 27 that the U.S. will seek support for “a much tougher position” should Iran reject the deadline. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says no one can impose sanctions on Iran anymore.

“This sanction would be difficult to enforce given long sea and land borders of Iran,” said Kamran Dadkhah, associate professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston. Even so, “it will make life more difficult for average Iranians particularly the less fortunate,” he said.

Effectiveness of Sanctions

Economic sanctions around the world don’t have a successful record. The estimate for the effectiveness of those sanctions is at about 15 to 30 percent, Dadkhah said.

France is opposed to curbing the sale of gasoline to Iran because this would punish the great mass of people and not the regime, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said.

“We don’t want to impose sanctions that hit the people,” Kouchner told reporters at a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Stockholm today. “The wealthiest people could get around that sort of sanction — that’s not what we want.”

Hamid Behbahani, Iran’s transportation minister, told the state-run Mehr news agency today that sanctions were the “only reason” for plane crashes in the country. Eight planes and helicopters have crashed in Iran in the past two months, Mehr said.

‘Interaction and Dialogue’

“The Iranian nation favors interaction and dialogue but will not surrender to pressure,” state-run Press TV cited Hassan Qashqavi, the foreign ministry spokesman, as saying yesterday. He was replying to a question on how Iran will respond to the September deadline, Press TV said. “Sanctions are just a rusty sword which has no major effect,” he said.

“You can make sanctions more likely to succeed if you make them tougher,” said Woolsey, who is a member of United Against Nuclear Iran, a New York-based non-partisan coalition committed to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. “Whatever we need to do in order to stop Ahmadinejad from getting a nuclear weapon is of extreme importance now.”

The U.S. Senate voted July 30 to punish companies that sell gasoline to Iran by prohibiting them from supplying the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The bill must be passed by the House of Representatives and signed by President Barack Obama before it becomes law.

‘Achilles’ Heel’

“Congress has embraced the idea of using Iran’s economic Achilles’ heel, its heavy dependence on gasoline imports for about 40 percent of its domestic needs, to pressure the regime,” Mark Dubowitz, executive director at foreign policy group the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an e- mailed statement in July.

Iran, holder of the world’s second-largest oil reserves, must import gasoline because it lacks sufficient refining capacity to supply motorists. The country is under three sets of UN sanctions for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment. The government denies its nuclear-energy program is a cover for the development of weapons.

Iran has developed an emergency gasoline plan that can be in place within 48 hours should the U.S. adopt fuel sanctions against the Persian Gulf country, former Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari said in May.

In his confirmation hearing in parliament, Iran’s new oil minister Masoud Mir-Kazemi said this week the Persian Gulf country should aim for “self-sufficiency” in gasoline production. His comments were published in a report on the parliament’s news Web site.

Time Running Out

“Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would be one of the worst things that has happened in international affairs in many years,” according to Woolsey, who was CIA director under President Clinton between 1993-1995. “We’re running out of time, because Iran is between months and a year from being able to have a nuclear weapon,” he said.

Iran’s top negotiator, Saeed Jalili, said Sept. 1 his country will present updated proposals for talks. Iran continues to enrich uranium in violation of United Nations sanctions, the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report last month. The Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog also said it can’t exclude the possibility that there is a military purpose to Iran’s nuclear program.