Should America squeeze its own companies to squeeze Iran?

Even if it can be done, forcing foreign oil firms to not sell gasoline to Iran will hurt the US economy

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Orde F Kittrie argues that the incoming Obama administration must exploit Iran’s “economic Achilles’ heel”—the fact that it has to import refined gasoline—to persuade it to negotiate over its nuclear programme. Since Iran imports gasoline from five firms “four of them European: the Swiss firm Vitol; the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura; the French firm Total; British Petroleum; and one Indian company, Reliance Industries”, he calls upon the Obama administration to insist that the Swiss, Dutch, French, British and Indian governments stop gasoline sales to Iran from their countries’ companies. (linkthanks Harsh Gupta)

In addition, he suggests that the US could act on its own:

Consider India’s Reliance Industries which, according to International Oil Daily, “reemerged as a major supplier of gasoline to Iran” in July after taking a break for several months. It “delivered three cargoes of gasoline totaling around 100,000 tons to Iran’s Mideast Gulf port of Bandar Abbas from its giant Jamnagar refinery in India’s western province of Gujarat.” Reliance reportedly “entered into a new arrangement with National Iranian Oil Co. (NIOC) under which it will supply around . . . three 35,000-ton cargoes a month, from its giant Jamnagar refinery.” One hundred thousand tons represents some 10% of Iran’s total monthly gasoline needs.

The Jamnagar refinery is heavily supported by U.S. taxpayer dollars. In May 2007, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, a government agency that assists in financing the export of U.S. goods and services, announced a $500 million loan guarantee to help finance expansion of the Jamnagar refinery. On Aug. 28, 2008, Ex-Im announced a new $400 million long-term loan guarantee for Reliance, including additional financing of work at the Jamnagar refinery. [WSJ]

It is unclear if Mr Kittrie is proposing that the US government purchase all that gasoline from Reliance at a premium over market prices, so as to deny the Iranians that gasoline. As for financing arrangements by the US Export-Import bank, what Mr Kittrie does not realise or forgets to mention, is that they exist because Reliance is purchasing goods and services from US suppliers. Withholding loan guarantees will be counterproductive to US commercial interests—for European and Japanese suppliers will be too keen to replace their American competitors, and their respective Ex-Im banks will supply the requisite loan guarantees. In any case, Reliance is unlikely to have too much of a difficulty in securing such guarantees, even in today’s financial markets.

Whatever the merits of the proposal to squeeze Iran through a policy of gasoline denial, Mr Kittrie’s proposal will hurt the US economy. Now, why would Mr Obama want to do that…when the US economy is already in the doldrums?