What follows is the talk I gave, plus some highlights from Professor Gilbert's
As was mentioned in my introduction, I'm a member of the local chapter
of Libertarians for Peace. I'm also an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate
School and a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford. I also
write a regular column on www.Antiwar.com.
I want to make five points, starting with the issue on which I'm least
expert and continuing in order of my expertise. But the overarching point
I want to make is that the way governments get more power over us is to scare
us, to make us afraid of various things. Governments run by Democrats have
things they want us to be afraid of so that we will support their policies.
Governments run by Republicans try to make us afraid of other things so that
we will support them and their policies. The Iranian government tries to make
people afraid so that people will support its policies. Governments around
the world do that. Now, of course there are some things we should be
afraid of. I'm afraid of jumping off cliffs, for example. And there are some
things that government warns us about that we should fear. But how afraid
should we be? And, since the topic today is Iran, how afraid should Americans
be that the Iranian government will harm them? My answer is "not very."
That brings me to my first point. One of the things that some people in the
U.S. have used to make us afraid is the famous quote from Iran's President
Ahmadinejad about "wiping Israel off the map." Here's the problem:
from what I can tell, he never said that. I have no expertise in Farsi, and
so I could be wrong here. But one expert in Farsi, Arash Norouzi, wrote
an article on the Web on January 18, 2007, laying out what Ahmadinejad
did and did not say. With my 10-minute time limit, I don't want to go into
it in much detail, but I do want to highlight one word that Ahmadinejad used
in his famous quote: "rezhim-e." What does that sound like to you?
[Members of the audience answered "regime."] Right. So what he was
saying was that the Zionist regime should be eliminated. This is not at all
the same as proposing that a country be wiped out. Democrats want the Bush
"regime" eliminated, and Republicans wanted Bill Clinton's "regime"
I should add that al-Jazeera
itself quoted Ahmadinejad as saying that Israel should be wiped off the
map. This has less credibility than appears, though, because al-Jazeera is
Arabic and has no special expertise in Farsi either. Moreover, the Arabs and
the Iranians in the Middle East have often been at odds, and it is plausible
that al-Jazeera, funded
by the government of Qatar, was trying to portray Iran in a bad light.
The second point I want to make is that one cannot understand Iranians and
how they think about the world without understanding the important role in
their lives of the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq. A
minimum estimate of Iranian lives lost in that war is 300,000. By the
time the war had ended, Iran's population was 60 million – meaning that Iran
had lost about one half of 1 percent of its population. To put that in an
American context, consider how many American lives were lost in the Vietnam
58,000. In 1970, by which time most of the U.S. deaths had occurred, the
U.S. population was about 200 million. Had we lost the same one half of 1
percent, our war deaths would have been a staggering 1 million. This is 17
times the number actually killed and 2.5 times the number of U.S. lives lost
during World War II.
My third point is about war for oil: given the amount of oil we in America
consume and the large percentage of our consumption we import, is there a
case for making war to obtain oil? My answer is no. I actually answered this
question in an op-ed
in the Wall Street Journal in August 1990, before the first Gulf War.
When Americans over age 40 think about governments in other countries reducing
the supply of oil, they tend to think of line-ups for gasoline. But no foreign
government, no matter how powerful, can make us line up for gasoline. Only
our government can do that, by imposing price controls on gasoline
that prevent the price from rising to the point where the amount demanded
equals the amount supplied. Result: shortages and line-ups. Our
line-ups in the early 1970s were due to the price controls on the U.S. economy
that Richard Nixon had imposed on Aug. 15, 1971. And the line-ups in the late
1970s were due to the fact that the price controls on oil and gasoline were
retained until Ronald Reagan eliminated them.
But couldn't governments of oil-producing countries make us worse off
by cutting off oil to the United States? Not really. Imagine that Venezuela,
which ships oil to us, decides to cut its shipments, with the purpose of hurting
U.S. consumers. But if Venezuela wants to maintain its output, it has to find
new buyers for this freed-up oil. So it does. Then the producers that some
of those new buyers had been purchasing from will have freed-up oil to sell
to – guess who? – people in the United States. So it's like a game of musical
chairs, where the number of people equals the number of chairs. It makes for
a boring game, but when it comes to oil supply and international trade, boring
is good. In fact, it's even easier than I've suggested to avoid being the
victim of a selective embargo. Oil is traded internationally, and the ownership
of a tanker of oil changes multiple times as it crosses the ocean. So, whomever
a particular government sells its oil to is not necessarily the same entity
as who ends up with the oil.
My fourth point is that Iranians have some reason to fear the United States,
based on past history. One reason many Iranians hated the U.S. government
was that, in 1953, the CIA, with Kermit Roosevelt and Norman Schwarzkopf Sr.
leading the charge, had given money to dissidents in Iran who deposed the
democratically elected premier, Mohammed Mossadegh, and reinstalled the shah
of Iran. The shah created a secret terrorist police force, SAVAK, that tortured
its own citizens and imprisoned political opponents. The CIA helped train
SAVAK. On domestic policy, the shah undertook a highly inflationary monetary
policy that caused the value of the Iranian currency to plummet. Inflation,
torture. Funny how that pisses people off.
Interestingly, when James Woolsey, former director of intelligence for the
Clinton administration's CIA, spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School in August
2003, he addressed the 1953 uprising in response to a question from me. During
his speech, Woolsey had stated that the war with militant Islam had begun
in November 1979 when some Iranians took over the U.S. embassy. I asked him
whether he didn't think it might have begun in 1953, when the CIA helped depose
Mossadegh. Laughing, Woolsey replied that, as Winston Churchill had said,
when it came to the Middle East, the Americans, after doing many wrong things,
would always end up doing the right thing. In other words, Woolsey seemed
to admit CIA complicity, but dismissed the idea that this mattered because
the U.S., at some point, (he didn't specify when) had gotten it right. The
bad consequences of the U.S. government's intervention in 1953 have been horrendous
and cannot be laughingly dismissed.
In 1980, by the way, President Jimmy Carter, asked at a press conference
whether he thought "it was proper for the United States to restore the
shah to the throne in 1953 against the popular will within Iran," answered,
"That's ancient history." Have any of you ever had a course
in ancient history? In the course, did you cover events that happened just
27 years earlier?
My fifth and final point is that some people's prima facie evidence for their
claim that the Iranian government wants to develop nuclear weapons is not
evidence at all. I'm not claiming that the Iranian government does not want
to develop nuclear weapons: I don't know. But one major alleged piece of evidence
for this conclusion is not really evidence. And to show why, I need to bring
in a concept from economics, the concept of "opportunity cost."
Imagine that you have an oil well that contains enough oil to supply
annually three times the amount you would ever want to use in a year. Suppose
that one of your main current uses of oil is to generate electric power for
your ranch. Would you want to buy electric power from someone else, power
that is generated by burning some other fuel, or, possibly, made by a nuclear
It's a trick question. You can't answer it without comparing two crucial
numbers: the cost of the oil you use to generate power and the price you would
pay for the alternate form of electricity. If, for example, the cost to you
of generating your own power were 7 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh) and the
cost to you of buying electric power were 9 cents per kWh, then, all other
things equal, you would want to make your own. If, on the other hand, these
numbers were reversed, then, all other things equal, you would want to buy
your electric power.
The opportunity cost of the oil you use is the value of the highest-valued
alternate use of the oil. Even though you could use the oil yourself, you
also could choose to sell it. And if you could get a high enough price for
it, then it might well be cheaper for you to sell the oil and buy electric
power made from some other fuel.
Many people, when they hear the term "opportunity cost," think of a concept
that they learned in an economics class years ago but didn't think mattered
much. In fact, "opportunity cost" is a powerful concept in economics that
can explain a lot of behavior we see around us – from why high-income people
almost never use the bus (due to the high opportunity cost of their time,
which actually makes the bus very expensive relative to airplanes) to why
hotel rooms in Manhattan are so much smaller than rooms in Houston (due to
the high opportunity cost of land in Manhattan compared to Houston.)
In fact, the concept of opportunity cost is so powerful that it leads
to an alternate explanation of the behavior of Iran's government in recent
years. When the Iranian government announces that it wants uranium enrichment
in order to have nuclear power, many people scoff at the idea. "Why," they
say, "would the Iranians want nuclear power? Look at all the oil they have."
Here's the way the U.S. Joint Economic Committee put it in the opening sentence
of a March 2006 report:
"Iran's vast oil and gas resources undermine the Iranian regime's
claim that its nuclear program is needed for domestic energy generation."
But these oil and gas resources don't undermine the regime's claim at all,
as the concept of opportunity cost makes clear. Now it's possible that the
Iranian government is lying: it is, after all, a government, and governments
often tell lies. But it's also possible that the Iranian government is telling
the truth. And opportunity cost is the relevant concept that helps us see
Just as in my ranch example, Iran may find its oil less valuable in generating
power than in selling on the world market. The numbers for Iran are similar
to the hypothetical numbers I gave for the ranch. In 2005, Iran produced 4.2
million barrels per day and exported two-thirds of its barrels, or 2.7 million
barrels per day. That Iran would want to consider exporting even more is especially
easy to understand when you consider that world oil prices this year have
averaged more than $65 a barrel, which is, adjusted for inflation, about double
the world price as recently as 2003. Iran's opportunity cost for oil has risen.
Again, I emphasize that I don't know enough about the situation to know
what the Iranian government's motive is for wanting to go more nuclear. But
my point is a narrower one: you can't simply, as the U.S. Joint Economic Committee
did, observe two facts – that the Iranian government wants more nuclear production
and that Iran is a net exporter of oil to the world – and conclude that, of
course, Iran's goal is to have nuclear weapons. The concept of opportunity
cost explains why.
The next speaker, Professor Gilbert, gave an interesting talk about what she
knows about Iran, both as a converted Muslim (she grew up as an Army brat in
the United States) who has read Iran's history over the years and as someone
who has visited there. She emphasized that she wasn't saying that Iran was perfect
but, rather, that it has been vilified beyond what any available evidence would
justify. I don't want to scoop her speech, which she may want to write up elsewhere.
Also, I did not independently check all her facts. But some of the facts went
strikingly against the negative view that many Americans have accepted. Professor
Gilbert stated, for example, that one of the top racecar drivers in Iran is
a woman and that 65
percent of college students are women. And although after the 1978 revolution,
women were not allowed to be judges, now, stated Professor Gilbert, some
judges are women. Professor Gilbert also challenged the conventional view
that Iran is rife with anti-Semitism and gave some evidence (which, again, I
have not verified) for that view.
Both Professor Gilbert and I received warm, sustained applause from the audience
of about 40, most of whom were probably liberal to left. George Riley, a local
official of the Green Party, came up afterward and told us we should take the
show on the road. Another audience member, a retired Peace Corps volunteer,
came up to me and said, enthusiastically, "I want to know in advance every
place you're going to give a speech. I'd even like to take your class."
All in all, a good event.