Argument

Punish Iran’s Rulers, Not Its People

The U.S. Congress is looking to penalize companies that help Iran import gasoline. But the plan is a huge giveaway to the very same hard-liners that are driving the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions and oppressing the Iranian people.

Time is running out for the United States to persuade Iran to halt its nuclear program. As the potential for a diplomatic solution wanes, Barack Obama's administration must consider what steps might dissuade Tehran from continuing its nuclear program without punishing the Iranian people or strengthening those who rule over them, chiefly the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Among the options under serious discussion are tougher U.S. or multilateral sanctions. The U.S. Congress, for example, is considering a bill that would sanction companies that provide Iran with refined petroleum products. According to some estimates, Iran relies on gasoline imports to satisfy up to 40 percent of domestic demand. However, sanctions on Iran's gas would only hurt the Iranian population without crippling the Iranian government. Worse, they would most likely enrich and could even strengthen the Revolutionary Guards and their business partners.

The Revolutionary Guards have emerged as Iran's foremost political and economic power broker and also drive major national security policies, especially on the country's nuclear program. Far from being hurt by gasoline sanctions, the Guards may in fact emerge as Iran's unchallenged economic power.

Iran is attempting to privatize state-held enterprises. Although this is supposed to be a competitive process, the Guards have managed to use their political influence and national security powers to sideline most private competitors. Sanctions on gasoline would not only hurt consumers, but damage businesses and companies that have struggled to compete with the Guards' economic expansion. With a virtual stranglehold on the state, the Guards would be able to bypass sanctions through their access to government gasoline reserves and the coffers of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration. Their competitors will not be so lucky.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has lived under U.S. sanctions for the past three decades. These sanctions have hindered Iran's ability to expand its economy and meet the demands of a growing, and restless, population. But many of Iran's economic woes are due instead to government mismanagement, ineptitude, and corruption. The cost has been less borne by the Iranian government, which relies on oil exports for most of its revenue, than by the educated and professional classes.

U.S. sanctions have even inspired a self-sufficiency movement among the political and military elite. Today, the Revolutionary Guards boast of "indigenously" produced missiles, and Ahmadinejad declares Iran to have become one of the world's great "nuclear powers."

Of course, Iran has relied on foreign (non-Western) suppliers for much of its weapons and nuclear technology. And the government is in desperate need of foreign investment and expertise to keep afloat, never mind improve, its ailing energy sector. Regardless, Iran's rulers, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and hard-line Revolutionary Guards officers, appear to believe that a nuclear deterrent is worth the costs in economic stagnation. And Iran's international isolation has only empowered the ruling elite, who have no desire to see the masses subjected to Western influences that could culminate in a "velvet revolution."

Meanwhile, the Revolutionary Guards have benefited from Iran's status as an economic pariah. Facing few remaining domestic and international competitors, the Guards have developed a virtual monopoly on all economic sectors, including construction, energy, transportation, and recently telecommunications.

In addition, the Guards, who oversee Iran's black-market trade, would benefit from the expansion of the underground economy created by gasoline sanctions and resulting shortages. Though the Guards' "legitimate" business interests may be somewhat affected by sanctions, their role in the underground economy may actually alleviate some of the economic pressures.

Opposition leaders realize that the Islamic Republic is approaching ideological, political, and economic insolvency. They believe that only a more flexible political and social system with greater access to the outside world can save the Iranian regime from ultimate ruin. The June  presidential election and its violent aftermath was not just a dispute over the person of the president, but was truly a struggle over Iran's future. Students, workers, doctors, lawyers, and even clerics are now at the forefront of the movement for change. Driven to economic ruin by their rulers, they may also soon face steep hikes in gasoline prices as a result of international sanctions. And they may very well place the blame on the United States, instead of on the Ahmadinejad administration. That could  give the Islamic Republic a second lease on life.

The best bet is to hit the Guards where they may be most vulnerable: their access to the global financial system. Iranian banks with ties to the Guards, such as Bank Melli, have so far been hurt by their inability to access the U.S. financial system, thus impeding their access to financial institutions worldwide. However, financial and banking sanctions will have to be multilateral -- enforced by Iran's traditional commercial partners -- in order to put real pressure on Guards-linked banks.

Yet even these measures would only have a limited effect in pressuring the Iranian government. America's best ally in this fight will be the Iranian people, many of whom are now risking their lives for change and a better future. Congress should think twice before enacting gasoline sanctions that could do more harm than good.

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Argument

How to Lose a Cyberwar

Why is America still letting online jihadists run amok?

The five young men detained in Pakistan this week -- like a whole new generation of jihadis -- appear to have made considerable use of the Internet in their alleged approach to al Qaeda. Their story points out that, more than eight years after 9/11, terrorist networks are still not only able to stay in touch via cyberspace, but that they are even extending their reach thanks to our giving them a free ride in the virtual domain.

U.S. President Barack Obama often speaks about his central strategic objective of denying al Qaeda its haven in Waziristan, but he says nary a word about taking away its "virtual haven" in cyberspace. This omission is more than his alone, as none of the key military, intelligence, and law-enforcement arms of the U.S. government have done much to curtail terrorist use of the Net.

Those who do try to keep an eye on terrorism in cyberspace often argue that they learn a lot about enemy networks by monitoring their narratives on jihadi websites. But if this made a real difference, we would have already won the war on terror.

Instead of thinking of cyberspace principally as a place to gather intelligence, we need to elevate it to the status of "battlespace." This means that we either want to exploit terrorists' use of the Web and Net unbeknownst to them, or we want to drive them from it.

We need to think of gaining an information edge, like the one enjoyed by the Allies in World War II. In that conflict, the first high-performance computing capability was created, and broke German and Japanese codes, enabling a series of victories to be won -- from the Mediterranean to Midway -- long before Allied material advantages could be brought to bear.

A similar capability fielded today against al Qaeda would do much more than just catch confused young men on their journey to the jihad. It would also intercept the messages that guide the movement of terrorist money, identify existing cells and nodes and enable us to go after them in the physical world, and allow us to preempt new attacks.

The officials I try to lobby in favor of creating this new "Magic" (the American name for the World War II code-breaking capability) always argue that, once the enemy realizes we have this capability, they will go to ground and we will know even less about where they are and what they intend to do next.

I make two replies to this objection. The first is that neither the Germans nor the Japanese ever figured out that the Allies could break their codes. Indeed, they were convinced that they had high-level traitors within their own regimes.

My second reply is that, even if the enemy finds out that we're on to them in cyberspace, all they can do is leave the virtual world. This would absolutely cripple a network spread out across more than 60 countries. And it would have a very chilling effect on potential recruits if they thought they might be under surveillance as soon as they started clicking.  No more Sargodha Fives.

But, for all the benefits of striving for this information edge, there is one big difference from the situation during World War II:  We need to develop more than just code-breaking capabilities. We must also focus on detection and tracking tools, and craft international agreements that allow us to move swiftly in hot pursuit among servers located across many different sovereignties.

The alternative to getting more aggressive about exploiting the terrorists in cyberspace, or driving them from it, is that the networks will continue to metastasize. The young men in Sargodha are not even the tip of the iceberg. If the al Qaeda narrative appeals to only 5 percent of the Muslim world -- as many experts suggest -- we're still talking about a core constituency of some 70 million people.

But if wannabe jihadis are attracted to the 12th-century logic of al Qaeda, they still need 21st-century information technology to link up. The events in Sargodha, the other current case of David Headley in Chicago, and the earlier instance of Najibullah Zazi the Denver airport shuttle driver, all point to an emergent subculture -- one that is increasingly enabled by and dependent upon cyberspace.

So let's take advantage of this dependence. Now.


John Moore/Getty Images