With little fanfare, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the Carter Doctrine, when President Jimmy Carter warned against “outside” control of the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The U.S. effectively enforced an implicit corollary to that doctrine — to prevent control by a regional power — in the Iraq wars of 1991 and 2003. But today, the Carter Doctrine must make a powerful and swift return: Iran’s nuclear ambitions threaten the Gulf, posing perhaps the greatest immediate threat to U.S. national security and a great threat to U.S. economic interests by provoking a long-term spike in oil prices.
President Carter came into office declaring the energy challenge the “moral equivalent of war.” He eventually came to designate energy supply as a cause for an actual war. Carter, perceived as weak internationally, dramatically expanded the perimeter of the U.S. defensive shield by declaring: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”
The Carter Doctrine is as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. The Persian Gulf’s oil production capacity as a proportion of global demand is roughly the same today — about 28 percent — as it was in 1980. If a hostile power controlled the Gulf, it could unduly influence countries such as China and the U.S., the first and second largest energy consumers, respectively, and play a highly influential role in OPEC, which would effectively hold the global economy hostage to its demands.
A far greater threat to the oil market would be Iran’s attainment of a nuclear weapons capability. The U.S. Fifth Fleet and its other military assets in the region guarantee the free flow of oil through the Persian Gulf. But a nuclear-armed Iran would gain de facto immunity from a conventional attack from another country, significantly limiting the effectiveness of U.S. force projection in the region.
Nevertheless, there is a growing belief in Washington that a nuclear-capable Iran can be contained, just as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. But while the U.S. could try to impose a nuclear shield around its regional allies and to help contain Iran, it will not be effective. United States’ credibility, so integral to effective deterrence, would be seriously diminished, if after repeatedly issuing warnings to the contrary it permitted Tehran to cross the nuclear threshold.
The best hope for continued U.S. enforcement of the Carter Doctrine and its corollary — protecting against control by a hostile regional power — is to prevent a nuclear Iran. A recent Bipartisan Policy Center report, “When Time Runs Out,” proposes a triple track approach involving diplomacy, sanctions, and visible and credible preparation for a military strike.
Much is at stake with the Iran issue: U.S. national security, nuclear proliferation, Arab-Israel peace, moderation of the Islamic world, security of Israel and Arab allies, the U.S. global position, and the secure supply of crude oil from the Persian Gulf that is so integral to our economy. It is vital, therefore, for the United States to continue to enforce the Carter Doctrine.
Michael Makovsky is foreign policy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center. Lawrence Goldstein is a founder of the Energy Policy Research Foundation. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.