The residential area around Columbia University is very quiet on summer afternoons. Some local restaurants don’t bother to serve lunch, and empty tables at Metisse, the neighborhood bistro Professor Sick selects for our interview, provide a good indication why.
During the school year, Sick teaches graduate classes focusing on Iran at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, but his main job the year round, he explains, is that of Executive Director for the school’s Gulf/2000 Project.
Who: Gary Sick, Senior Research Scholar, Middle East Institute, Columbia University.Where: Metisse, 239 West 105 Street, New York, June 11, 2008On the Menu: Kabab, tapinade and Ahmadinejad
Now, there are several gulfs to be found on the map of the world, with the Gulf of Mexico being both the largest and the closest to America’s shores. Nevertheless, no one questions which gulf Sick’s project is concerned with. Gulf/2000 Project is a subscription-only Web-based think tank where international scholars, political leaders and business executives obtain information and exchange opinions on the political situation around the Persian Gulf.
The economy and the war in Iraq are the top two issues of this year’s U.S. presidential campaign. Ironically, both are centered on the Middle East. The United States, Sick asserts, is now a Middle Eastern power — and the strongest one at that, with the region’s most powerful military.
As for the economy, American households’ economic woes, as well as voters’ concerns, have a lot to do with gas prices surpassing $4 per gallon and heading higher. “There is no doubt that current oil prices incorporate a substantial political risk premium,” says Sick.
Sure, oil traders are worried about possible shortages of oil. But any such shortages wouldn’t happen before a decade from now. This is not why the price of oil has been bid up now, because currently oil supply and oil demand are basically in balance.
“Every time Bush threatens Iran by saying that all options are on the table, including the military one, oil spikes,” says Sick.
High though oil prices already are, Sick disagrees with those who believe that the market has discounted a military strike against Iranian nuclear sites. “Prices would go a lot higher, and stay there, too, if the market really believed that an attack on Iran were imminent.”
Sick doesn’t hazard to forecast oil prices, but one thing he is certain about. No stranger to controversial conspiracy theories — he supported the October Surprise hypothesis, which suggested that the Ronald Reagan presidential campaign had a hand in Iranian radicals’ release of U.S. hostages in October 1980 — this time he categorically dismisses speculation that an attack on Iran is imminent.
“It will not only fail to achieve its goals,” he says. “It will be counterproductive.”
The cost for the United States will be prohibitive, he says. Even if Iran won’t be able to damage oil terminals on the Gulf, Iranian exports of some 2.5 million barrels a day will be removed from the market, pushing oil prices substantially higher. Iran will also retaliate against U.S. troops in Iraq and may attack America’s allies in other parts of the Middle East, causing additional casualties and further destabilizing the region.
At the same time, Sick doesn’t believe that Iran’s dispersed nuclear sites could be eliminated with a neat surgical strike from the air. Even the extent of the damage won’t be known for certain. But what is certain is that Iran will kick out international inspectors. We will lose our ability to know what goes on there at a time when Iran’s leadership will have an added incentive to obtain the bomb.
Nor is Israel likely to try to solve unilaterally the threat that many in Israel believe Iran poses to its own existence.