Between Iran and a Hard Place

Forced to choose between high gas prices and a nuclear Iran, Barack Obama could very well remake himself into a war president.

When U.S. President Barack Obama enters his White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 5 -- angling to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities -- there will be one seemingly mundane issue on his mind that he may be too uncomfortable to share with his guest: gasoline prices.

There is no gainsaying the corrosive political impact that high gasoline prices have on an incumbent president's chances of getting reelected. With prices projected to hit a national average of $4.25 a gallon by Memorial Day, and with a new poll finding that seven in 10 Americans find the gas price issue "deeply important," the president should be concerned. The tension with Iran has already pushed crude prices to their highest level since the onset of the Arab Spring, adding at least 30 cents to a gallon of regular gasoline. Investors, concerned about potential escalation in the Persian Gulf, are likely to push oil prices even higher. Other factors -- a decline in the dollar, tensions and supply disruptions in oil-producing nations such as Nigeria and Sudan, stocks building up in refineries in preparation for the summer driving season, and a sense that the American economy is improving, to name a few -- have also contributed to the upswing.

No one recognizes the political implications of high fuel prices during an election year more than Obama himself. During the summer of 2008, when he ran against Sen. John McCain, oil prices stood at a historical high of $147 a barrel and gasoline prices surpassed $5 a gallon in some parts of the country. The Republican response -- for the most part "gas-tax holiday" and "drill-baby-drill" sloganeering -- demonstrated the incumbent party's helplessness in the face of an out-of-control oil firestorm. At the time, the crisis worked in Obama's favor. Today, it's the GOP's turn to smell blood. Obama knows this. The problem is that Netanyahu, one of the savviest foreign leaders when it comes to American politics, knows this too.

Israel, meanwhile, is running out of patience with diplomatic responses to Iran's nuclear program, and the momentum for Israeli airstrikes is growing by the day. The economic sanctions against Iran may be biting, but they're not crippling. Iran is moving full steam ahead with its uranium-enrichment activities, and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who also visited Washington this week, says that Iran will shortly reach a "zone of immunity" in which military intervention by the outside world may no longer be feasible. The recent string of apparent Iranian attacks against Israeli diplomats in Bangkok, New Delhi, and Tbilisi have strengthened the perception among Israelis that the regime in Tehran is a loose cannon, while the shameful display of cynicism and apathy at the U.N. Security Council by China and Russia in the face of Bashar al-Assad's atrocities have reminded the Israelis of how unreliable the international community can be when it comes to their national security.

Fed up with the vague official U.S. line that "all options are on the table" when it comes to Iran, Netanyahu is reportedly going to ask Obama to harden the rhetoric against Tehran and make some unequivocal statements about the United States preparing for a military strike in the event that Iran crosses certain red lines. If Obama refuses to oblige, it would expose clear daylight between the two leaders just as they share the same podium at next week's annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. It would also expose Obama to harsh GOP accusations that he is weak on Iran. Acquiescence, on the other hand, would elevate the temperature in the global oil market, driving prices to a higher level and deepening Obama's gas price predicament.

As if the horns of this dilemma don't poke enough, Obama has another mine to diffuse: the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran prior to the November elections. Should such an attack take place -- regardless of its success in destroying Iran's nuclear sites -- the short-term implications for the global economy could be dire. A war in the Middle East means an oil shock and, as was the case in 1973, 1979, and 1990, oil shocks are harbingers of recessions. In testimony before the Senate Budget Committee last month, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned that a major disruption in oil supply could put the kibosh on the recovery. Indeed, a new oil shock would be just as dangerous as a second heart attack for a fragile patient who is just recovering from his first.

Getting an Israeli commitment to hold its planes on the ground until after the November elections means Israel would have to postpone the attack by at least a year, as a winter strike is more difficult to execute. This is a non-trivial request that -- if even considered -- would come at a hefty price. While such a quiet agreement would never be publicly acknowledged, there would be telltale signs galore. The release of imprisoned spy Jonathan Pollard, a job-creating U.S. weapons deal, or an overturning of the decision to cut missile-defense spending for Israel in the administration's fiscal 2013 budget proposal would indicate to the outside observer that the president may have bought himself more time.

But there is another possibility. Instead of postponing the inevitable crisis, the president may decide to own it.

Some historical perspective is helpful here. Forty-five years ago, America was embroiled in a protracted and costly war in Vietnam. Yet President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, gave Israel a "yellow light" to preemptively attack Egypt, knowing that such a nod meant stirring the hornets' nest of the Middle East, an oil shock, and an escalation in the Cold War. Today, the risks of an Israeli attack for the international system are no smaller. While such an act could be a stunning success, it could just as easily unleash a chain of events that would bring the world to the brink of the Greater Depression.

The key difference between then and now is that Johnson did not run for reelection, and could therefore afford to turn on the yellow light and depart from the scene. Obama, by contrast, wants a second term and cannot afford to relinquish control over what could be a spiraling international crisis. If all other measures fail, Obama's only way of turning lemons into lemonade is to take ownership of, and lead, the military option against Iran, and reinvent himself as a war president in the hope that American motorists will view their pain at the pump forgivingly as part of their patriotic duty. Such an option would also defuse Republicans criticism about Obama being weak on Iran and transform national priorities in the months leading up to the elections.

The link between barrels and bombs -- or bunker busters, to be precise -- has never been more apparent. And, regardless of what transpires, there is an important, widely ignored lesson in the nexus between the two. For decades, American politicians and pundits have toed a line that calls for the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign oil in order to insulate Americans from the volatility of the Middle East. The only difference between the two parties has been that Republicans advocate supply-side, drill-baby-drill tactics while Democrats prefer dieting and demand reductions through fuel-efficiency standards.

These two responses combined have dramatically reined in America's oil imports in recent years. Since 2005, oil imports as a share of overall oil use in the United States have fallen from their 60 percent peak to 46 percent, or 1995 levels. In just seven years, in other words, the United States has reduced its demand for oil imports by an amount equivalent to three times the oil imported by the United States from Saudi Arabia. Though some of this is due to the recession, most of the credit goes to a ramp-up in domestic oil production, enabled by technologies such as deep-water drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and horizontal drilling as well as increased fuel efficiency in vehicles. Pundits and energy experts now declare that America is on the road to self-sufficiency.

But here's the rub: Over the same period of time, oil prices have nearly doubled and the price of a gallon of regular gasoline has increased by 65 percent. In fact, U.S. drivers spent more last year on gasoline than ever before. Should the price of gas hit $4.25 a gallon by the spring, as the Oil Price Information Service predicts, that would represent an 85 percent increase over the 2005 price. The experience of the past seven years reveals nothing less than the collapse of the very energy security paradigm that dominated America's political discourse throughout the tenure of no fewer than eight consecutive presidents and 20 Congresses. Americans were promised that if they drilled more and saved more they would pay less. They did both, and they're paying more.

Why? Over the past 45 years, America has failed to address the real root of its energy vulnerability: oil's virtual monopoly on transportation fuel, enabled by the fact that, for the most part, cars sold in America are made and warrantied to run on nothing but petroleum fuels. As long as most cars are off-limits to competing fuels -- whether electricity, gaseous fuels, or liquids made from biomass, coal, or natural gas -- American motorists and presidents will be financially and politically vulnerable to the convulsions of the Middle East, regardless of how much we drill at home or how efficient our cars are. Only once Americans have cars that encourage fuel competition, thereby eroding the strategic importance of oil, will American presidents be able to pursue the country's foreign policy objectives without fearing shock at the pump. But that's likely small consolation for President Obama as he considers the threats posed by high gas prices on one hand and a nuclear Iran on the other, and his political future -- not to mention the fragile health of the U.S. economy -- hang in the balance.



Trouble in Paradise

The deposed president of the Maldives on the coup that tossed him from power.

Even after its democratic revolution in 2008, few saw the Maldives as a political trend-setter. Yet, in retrospect, the ousting of a 30-year dictatorship in a Muslim country was a precursor to the Arab Spring revolts that swept across the Middle East two years later. As in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, the Maldivians who took to the streets, confronting the regime's riot police, and demanding change in 2008 were youthful, full of aspirations for a better economic future, and tired of the iron-fisted autocratic rule of a dictator -- Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. I was elected president in the first-ever multi-party polls in the Maldives' 2,500-year history, on a ticket of civil liberties, freedom of the press, and democratic change.

Fast-forward to this month, when the forces of autocracy in the Maldives staged a sudden and brutal coup d'etat. Rogue elements in the police and military joined together to seize the main television station, ransack the offices of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party, and force my own resignation with threats of bloodshed. In the days that followed I, and many of my fellow democrats, were beaten and imprisoned, and the young democracy we have worked so hard to nurture has been left in mortal danger.

If the Maldives was a precursor to the Arab Spring, let us hope that it is not now a foretaste of a new Arab Winter. There is still time for democracy to recover in my country, but only if the wider world insists that a forceful coup against an elected government cannot be allowed to stand.

My predecessor, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, ruled the Maldives with an iron fist for 30 years. During his long reign (at one point, he was the longest-ruling head of government in Asia), political parties were banned, freedom of expression was severely curtailed, and hundreds of Maldivians were tortured -- some murdered -- in his jails. Amnesty International frequently condemned Gayoom's brutal rule and Reporters Without Borders labeled him a "predator of press freedom." Political prisoners were dealt with particularly harshly: I spent six years in jail, including 18 months in solitary confinement.

After the killing of a young boy, Evan Naseem, in police custody in 2003, Maldivians rose up against Gayoom and demanded change. My party, the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP), was then established and we led a non-violent campaign of civil disobedience, calling for democracy. Facing growing domestic and international pressure, Gayoom was forced to release his grip, and allowed the constitution to be changed for and free and fair elections to be held in 2008, in which he was swept from office.

For the past three years, despite setbacks and sustained opposition from remnants of the old regime in the judiciary and parliament, things had been getting gradually better. My government inherited what the World Bank described as "the worst economic conditions of any country undergoing democratic reform since the 1950s," yet with the help of the International Monetary Fund we managed to slash the budget deficit from 22 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 to 9 percent last year.

Moreover, we were on track to deliver on nearly all of our election pledges: a public transport ferry system connecting all of our disparate islands was set up; a pension system for the elderly along with universal health insurance was put in place; the country's first university was established; import duties on staple goods were removed; and drug addicts, of which the Maldives regrettably has many, were no longer treated as criminals but as victims in need of care and rehabilitation.

To help pay for the creation of a basic social safety net, a modern taxation system was also created. A "goods and services tax" was established, as was a corporation tax to provide a secure basis for government finances. And this year, we were planning to introduce a small income tax for the first time in the country's history.

We also tried to reform the judiciary. Many judges remained under the effective control of the former regime and were blocking corruption and embezzlement cases involving members of Gayoom's administration. This January, in a move that proved controversial, I ordered the military to arrest a notorious Criminal Court judge, who had quashed his own police arrest warrant, after he was found guilty of misconduct by the Judicial Services Commission -- the body responsible for monitoring judges' behavior.

The government requested the Commonwealth and the United Nations to intervene and help reform the judiciary root and branch. Following the arrest warrant, some of Gayoom's supporters staged nightly protests calling for the judge's release but the numbers protesting on the streets were small, just 200-400. Little did my government know the enormity of what they were plotting.

In the early hours of Feb. 7, all this positive work was brought to a sudden halt. A few hundred police officers, led by rogue officers of the Special Operations unit -- once called "Star Force" and used by Gayoom to crush dissent -- mutinied and staged a protest outside the Army headquarters in the center of Malé, the Maldivian capital, along with several hundred Gayoom supporters.

At 6:30 am, I went to Republic Square to plead with the mutinying officers to stand down. However, they were in no mood to listen to voices of compromise. The mutinying officers, some in full riot gear, clashed violently with military police protecting the Army headquarters.

The police mutineers were egged on by private television stations allied with the former president, which broadcast inflammatory messages encouraging the police and military to overthrow the government. Unbeknownst to me, my vice president, Waheed Hassan, an former senior U.N. official and Stanford University graduate, gave a TV interview pledging his support to the mutiny.

Later that morning, rogue police units stormed the state television and radio station, placed its staff under armed guard, and replaced its broadcasts with those of the private stations encouraging the uprising. Moments later, police ransacked the main conference hall of the ruling Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP).

As the morning went on, I remained at the Army headquarters, ordering the military, dressed in riot gear, to put down the insurrection. But some military crossed over to the protestors and, by 11 a.m., while I was still in the Army headquarters, some lower-ranking military men, having switched allegiances, presented me with an ultimatum: either resign within an hour, or face bloodshed that would include my own and that of my colleagues and supporters. I chose the first option; but said that I would only resign in the relative safety of the president's office, a few hundred yards down the street.

At 12.45 p.m. at the president's office, accompanied by three former military and police men loyal to former President Gayoom, who I believe helped orchestrate the coup, I wrote my resignation letter and announced my decision on television. I was then marched to the presidential residence and placed under military house arrest. Soon afterwards, Vice President Waheed -- who I believe had prior knowledge of the coup -- took the oath of office. State and private television -- now almost exclusively under the control of Gayoom's allies -- reported the events as a constitutional handover of power.

The next day, with chaos on the streets, a couple of my aides managed to flee the country and alert the press about what had really transpired. No longer under house arrest, I was also able to give a series of interviews to alert the foreign media that I had been forced from office under duress. My party, the MDP, convened an emergency meeting, in which we unanimously voted not to cooperate with an illegitimate regime that had assumed power through the barrel of a gun. After the meeting, I led a large crowd of supporters, thousands strong, through the streets of Malé in a peaceful march for democracy.

It was not long before the new regime flexed its authoritarian muscle. Riot police baton-charged the crowd of unarmed demonstrators, beating and pepper-spraying anyone, including women and the elderly, participating in the rally. Shortly before the police crackdown, military commanders ordered my armed bodyguards to stand down, and so I sought refuge in a small shop, with MDP interim chairperson Moosa Manik and Mariya Didi, a fellow member of parliament. Riot police entered and dragged the three of us out onto the street. A policeman grabbed me in the groin and punched me in the face. Mariya was dragged along the street by her hair. Moosa was beaten unconscious by half a dozen policeman armed with batons, who said they would kill him. One policeman attempted to drive a metal pole through Moosa's head but a brave soldier dived on top of him and took the blow on his behalf.

The Maldives exploded into uproar. The police -- now discredited in the eyes of many Maldivians -- were chased off some islands. On others, security forces managed to execute brutal pre-emptive crackdowns on MDP supporters, including many democratically elected local councillors. In the southern city of Addu, a populous bastion of MDP support, some local people torched police stations, court houses, and other symbols of the state. The following day, Feb. 9, riot police rounded up hundreds of MDP sympathizers in Addu, and -- according to Al Jazeera reports -- beat and tortured many of them.

For his part, Waheed continues to deny that a coup took place, has claimed he had no prior knowledge of the events of the Feb. 7, and has glossed over the ensuing police brutality as minor "excesses." With almost no political base of his own -- Waheed's party has barely 4,000 members (the MDP has over 45,000), no members of parliament, and no local government counsellors -- the new self-proclaimed "president" has stacked his administration with the former autocrat's loyalists. Gayoom's daughter has been appointed junior foreign minister; his lawyer has been made attorney-general; his former spokesman has been appointed a cabinet minister; and the three former military and police men at the forefront of the coup have been made police chief, defence minister and deputy home minister respectively.

Betraying his liberal values (as a former U.N. career diplomat, my vice president had always been the most open minded member of the cabinet), Waheed has rushed to appease and inflame Islamic radicals. In a speech on Jan. 24, he credited his ascent to the presidency to "the will of Allah" and described his supporters as Maldivian "mujaheddin," encouraging them to "fight to the last drop of our blood" against "the enemies of this country." Needless to say, these are not the words of a democrat who is committed to the rule of law.

The Maldives -- strategically located in the Indian Ocean, just off the south-western tip of India -- is increasingly contested territory for the great regional powers, India and China. During my time in office, the MDP Government emphasized the special relationship between the Maldives and India, particularly with regard to our shared commitment to democracy.

Throughout the last few weeks, India has played a significant and increasingly helpful role in trying to defuse the crisis in the Maldives and ensure democracy prevails in its own backyard. Crucially, during a recent visit by Indian Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, Waheed promised to hold early elections, well before the scheduled date in late 2013.

The European Union has gone further, declining to recognize the new regime. The Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as the British Commonwealth, of which the Maldives is a member, demanded early elections this year and an independent, internationally supervised investigation into the events surrounding the transfer of power -- a demand I fully support. My good friends -- including Nobel Peace Prize winner President Jose Ramos Horta of Timor-Leste and Sir Richard Branson -- have publicly stated what lesser men will only privately admit: that this was a deplorable police and military-backed coup.

For his part, Waheed seems unable to understand the demands of the people who have remained insistent on their desire for elections this year, despite the cloud of illegitimacy overshadowing his rule. The new president continues to prevaricate over whether early elections will actually be held.

The Maldives appears set for more turbulence in the days ahead. Tens of thousands of Maldivians are protesting in the streets every day, bravely defying police intimidation, and calling for early elections that will restore democratic rule. The international community now has a stark choice: apply meaningful pressure on Waheed to relent and call elections, or watch his regime become increasingly authoritarian and extremist.

My country's democracy hangs in the balance, but the stakes may be even higher than the Maldives. The country that was a precursor to the Arab Spring, and that held so much hope that democracy and liberty could flourish alongside Islam, is in peril. The principle is clear: democratically elected governments can only be removed by the people who elected them, not by force of arms. The world has a duty not to sit passively by as the flame of democracy -- for which Maldivians have fought so long -- is snuffed out in our islands once again.