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Paul Heroux

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The Cowboys in Congress

Posted: 12/02/11 02:39 PM ET

The cost of gas at the pump has decreased dramatically in recent weeks. As we go into the Christmas season that is a small comfort to people who are going to travel to be with family. However, this could change very quickly.

According to presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, the US has an embassy in Iran and "[if I were president] we wouldn't have an embassy in Iran. I wouldn't allow that to be there." Coming from a Member of the House Committee on Intelligence, this is scary.

The US has not had a diplomatic relationship with Iran since 1979. Unofficially, the US has intelligence operations in Iran that are run out of the embassies of our allies or through business ventures. But gathering intelligence on Iran and its nuclear program is going to become more complicated for the US with the sacking of the British embassy in Tehran last week by Iranian protesters.

The international community has long suspected that Iran's nuclear program is not exclusively an energy program; ample evidence collected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) suggests that Iran's civilian nuclear energy program is a cover for a weapons program. Iran's president disagrees stating that pursuit of a nuclear weapon is "un-Islamic."

This issue has been an ongoing challenge for the US since at least 2002 when a dissident group revealed that Iran was pursuing a nuclear capability. Today, Iran is at the point of no return with its nuclear program; Iran has the knowledge necessary to make nuclear weapons and knowledge is not something that can be undone.

So, what are the options for dealing with Iran's nuclear program? We can do nothing; but doing nothing isn't a real option. We can use our military to target Iran's nuclear sites, but this is bound to have unforeseen consequences and ultimately be ineffective since nuclear knowledge can't be undone. We can make diplomatic overtures, which we have done but these have fallen on deaf ears. Or we can sanction Iran.

Sanctions

The history of sanctions is mixed. Sometimes they work, sometimes they lead to war. The sanctions that the US is now considering would target Iran's central bank.

The up-side to targeting Iran's central bank is that it would be to cut off any US banking with any foreign banks that do business with Iran. On the surface it seems to make sense. However, there is a down-side.

The down-side is that this could be a bad idea in today's uncertain and fragile economy. Forcing foreign countries to choose between doing business with Iran in which they pay for oil and gas from Iran, or not doing business with the US is going to harm the economy.

For example, by reducing the amount of oil supply in world markets, the cost of oil is going to skyrocket. Europe, which has a much more fragile economy than the US, imports a large amount of Iranian oil. This would harm their economy and as we have seen by now, the US economy responds to Europe's economy. This is also bad from the cost of shipping goods from overseas to the US to the cost of fuel at the pump in our community.

The current sanctions being considered by the Congress are short-sighted and don't take into consideration the multifaceted nature of this beast.

Cowboys Need Not Apply

The Congress needs to craft sanctions that don't scare oil markets to increase prices. This could involve working with other oil producing and exporting countries to increase the supply of oil so as to offset any decrease in supply from Iran; the Congress has not done this. Alternatively, the Congress should consider provisions that all for exemptions to Iranian oil to continue to flow.

Having said all that, this scenario is speculative. We don't know how much the expert's analysis of decreased would increase the cost of shipping and gas at the pump. What really needs to be done is we need to find out how much the price of fuel would increase and how much this could be mitigated by increases in oil production by other nations. Then we can look at the proposed sanctions as a possible option. This analysis hasn't been done and Congress hasn't asked for it.

Until the US Congress starts doing things with a more calculated approach as opposed to the caviler cowboy approach using blunt sanctions, we are likely to have unintended consequences to our policies.

The next class of US Representatives and Senators needs to understand these nuances and be a voice of reason and persuasion in a Congress that has a 6% percent rating as doing a good or excellent job.