President Bush famously promised that on his watch "the worst weapons will not fall into the worst hands." But he leaves office with the militant mullahs of Iran closer than ever to acquiring nuclear devices and various means to deliver them.
Barack Obama also has said that the world "cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region." He added: "Not only would it threaten Israel...it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. And so it's unacceptable. And I will do everything that's required to prevent it."
But what is required? Between preemptively using military force-not very likely-and persuading Iran's revolutionary leaders to give up their nuclear ambitions-equally unlikely-few options are at hand. But there is one possibility to consider.
The chink in Iran's armor is economic: Despite the sea of petroleum that lies under its sand and soil, Iran must import 40 percent of its gasoline. Why? Because Iran's rulers have used the country's oil wealth to build nuclear reactors instead of oil refineries.
Without gasoline, Iran's economy-long sputtering and slowing dramatically now due to global recession and the sudden drop in oil prices-will go into crisis. We know that from experience: Gasoline was rationed in Iran during the summer of 2007, and violent protests broke out-some called it a pre-revolutionary situation. Soon, the regime backed off and imported more gasoline, which has since been subsidized at great cost to the Iranian treasury.
So an American president who could restrict the flow of gasoline to Iran would wield a powerful tool-one he could use as leverage in negotiations. He could force Iran's rulers to reevaluate whether their drive for nuclear weapons strengthens-or threatens-their hold on power.
Research by Orde Kittrie, a former State Department analyst, now a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (the Washington think tank I head), points out that Iran gets almost all its gasoline from just five companies: BP (British Petroleum), India's Reliance Industries, Switzerland's Vitol, France's Total and the Swiss/Dutch Trafigura. All have substantial financial interests in America or with the U.S. government. Despite this, at no point over the past eight years has the Bush Administration attempted to influence them through policy or legislation.
Exercising such influence should be at the top of President Barack Obama's foreign policy agenda. Indeed, during a presidential debate last October, Obama said that "if we can prevent [Iran's rulers] from importing the gasoline that they need ... that starts changing their cost-benefit analysis. That starts putting the squeeze on them."
There is bipartisan support in Congress for such an approach as well. But, yes, there are critics, too, in both parties. Some say that the U.S. government should not interfere in international oil markets. That's a sound rule-one for which an exception should be made in this case. A nuclear, militant Islamist regime would threaten America's vital national security interests. And it would pose an existential threat to Israel, America's most valuable and reliable ally in the Middle East.
Kittrie's research suggests that whatever gasoline Iran does not receive would find buyers in other markets-the international economic system will suffer no harm. In fact, at current prices, the U.S. itself should consider purchasing the gasoline and adding it to our strategic reserves.
Other critics contend that Iran would find other sources of gasoline. But Kittrie has looked carefully at this question and found that there are a very limited number of reliable suppliers to whom Iran could turn. Neither Russia nor China could take up the slack. Both are themselves dependent on imported refined petroleum products.
How to enlist the cooperation of the companies now supplying Iran with gasoline? The Obama Administration could start simply by approaching them and the governments in which they are headquartered. There is precedent: In recent years, the Treasury Department has convinced more than 80 foreign banks to end or limit their dealings with Iran.
If that's insufficient, it could be made clear that, starting immediately, companies providing gasoline to Iran-so long as Iran is illegally developing nuclear weapons-will not be welcome to do business in the U.S.
If sharper teeth are needed, there are a number of legislative ways to provide them. For example, the Iran Sanctions Act could be amended to punish companies that sell gasoline to Iran. Such trade could be defined as a form of "material support" to Iran, the world's leading sponsor of terrorism.
Recently, 60 Iranian economists boldly criticized President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's foreign policy, saying it has "scared off foreign investment and inflicted heavy damage on the economy." They said that international sanctions-half-hearted as they have been-have nonetheless cost Iran billions of dollars. Beginning to turn the nozzle on Iran's gasoline supply could demonstrate to the ruling theocrats that the price of nuclear weapons might be higher than they now believe.
The militant jihadi regime in Tehran has been clear about its intentions: Israel is to be wiped off the map. And "a world without America," Ahmadinejad has said, "is achievable." To take no serious actions while this regime develops the capabilities to support those malevolent goals would be unforgivable.