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Pointless Posturing

October 01, 1987

The Senate has been informed to its apparent horror that through July of this year the United States imported $935 million worth of products from Iran, with crude oil accounting for $810 million of that total. This, the senators have now firmly decided, is not a good thing. Whipped into reaction by Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the minority leader and a candidate for President, the Senate has come out four-square in behalf of embargoing all imports from Iran sometime soon. The vote was 98 to 0. Not for a long time have so many voted so decisively to accomplish so little.

For, as even the measure's backers admit, an American import ban on Iranian products would have almost no effect on the future or fortunes of the Islamic Republic. Dole's solemn proclamation that "it's time for action" notwithstanding, this week's vote should most properly be seen as simply a symbolic gesture that allowed senators to pose tough, cost-free. As an act of political courage it is equivalent to an endorsement of Mother's Day. For Iran's economy, as the Senate well knows, does not depend to any meaningful degree on trade with the United States. With the arguable exception of a few Persian carpets and a handful of pistachio nuts, virtually everything that Iran now sells to the United States--most of all oil--it could easily sell to other countries, with no loss of revenue. The United States, in sum, is a market that Iran can readily replace.

American companies have indeed been stocking up on Iranian oil, quite possibly for the same reason that the U.S. government earlier bought oil from Iran for the national petroleum reserve: The price was right. The government purchases were made at times when Iran was known to be giving under-the-table discounts to boost sales. It's not unreasonable to suspect that similar Iranian incentives help account for the stepped-up purchases by private American buyers. And that's not a bad thing, to the extent that it helps hold down the U.S. trade imbalance.

Sen. Dole, taking bows for his legislative triumph, grandly announces that the Senate vote has sent a message to Iran that the United States will no longer "tolerate business as usual." Whatever that is supposed to mean, it is not likely to set the ayatollahs to trembling in Tehran. They know pointless moral posturing when they see it. So do the American people.

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