The Russian military has some peculiar priorities when it comes to choosing targets in Ukraine: pregnant women and newborns, the hospitals that serve them, churches, and, this week, grain terminals, the last being part of a strategy to use the threat of food shortages to blackmail countries dependent on imported grains into pressuring Ukraine to accept a Moscow-designed settlement while raising the value of Russia’s own grain exports.
Which is to say, the Russian commitment to behaving like Roger Moore-era Bond villains—minus the groovy style and badinage—remains undiminished.
Of course, we can count on Vladimir Putin’s chirping secretaries on the American right to continue finding excuses to give Moscow whatever Moscow demands—but the world’s foodstuffs markets run on supply and demand, not cheap propaganda.
The Monday attack on the grain facility at Reni, on the Danube River near the Romanian border, was carried out with Iranian drones. That is an interesting wrinkle. Iran is one of the countries in this world that should be least eager to see further disruptions to the grain markets: A combination of drought, sanctions, and perpetual economic mismanagement at the hands of its fanatical ayatollahs have left the so-called Islamic Republic on the verge of a food disaster: Domestic grain production is in decline, inability to make good on payments has interrupted supplies from trading partners including Russia and India, institutions such as hospitals and childcare facilities face food shortages, etc. And now India has prohibited the export of non-basmati rice after a delayed monsoon raised fears of production shortfalls.
Iran’s recent internal instability began with the killing of Mahsa Amini by Iran’s immoral morality police, and rising food prices quickly turbocharged the nationwide protests.
Tehran is making itself a very uncomfortable-looking bed. Washington should see to it that the ayatollahs recline there for a good long while.
The current sanctions regime has done real damage to Iran’s economy, but not enough to dispositively release the grip of the wretched regime that holds that unhappy country hostage. These sanctions in theory exclude food and medicine, but, in reality, food and medicine are more than trivially affected, too, simply because the Iranian government and domestic buyers often cannot muster the resources to pay for such supplies as are available. Indian basmati exporters already have declared that they will service the Iranian market only for cash payments or letters of credit (bank-guaranteed payment instruments) because of the accrual of unpaid bills for Indian produce.
Iran is, in effect and to a considerable degree, an active participant in the Russian war on Ukraine, providing not only drones but also promising other munitions such as surface-to-surface missiles. Western governments have complained bitterly about this, but they have not availed themselves of the most obvious weapon at hand: formally extending the sanctions to food.
If Iran is going to help Russia destroy the world’s food supplies, then let Iran be the first to pay the price for it. This isn’t to say that we should let the Iranian people starve—it is to say that we should do what we can to inflict enough economic pain to force Tehran change its ways or to destabilize the country enough to give the Iranians a chance to create a better government for themselves. Iran was a reasonably normal country within living memory—there is no iron law of the universe that says Iran has to be a miserable backwater under the heels of corrupt misfits and vicious degenerates. The Iranians would be doing themselves a favor to get rid of these oligarchs—and, more to the point, they would be doing the rest of the world a favor, too.
Yes, that would be a harsh measure. Sometimes, harsh measures are necessary.
Because of the attention given to Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan’s new film, Americans are going through one of their periodic revivals of the debate over whether dropping two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 was the right thing to do. The usual questions have been raised: How many American lives would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland? How many Japanese lives? Was unconditional surrender a necessary condition for peace? Etc. But one consideration that rarely is discussed—because it involves the instrumentation of horror—is the fact that it was useful, and possibly necessary, to make an example of Japan. German fanaticism and Japanese fanaticism were different in important ways, and Germany’s fanaticism was not enough to sustain its war effort after it was clear that the Allies would prevail—but Japan’s was. Germany ended up being divided between a Soviet-dominated East and a free West, while Japan was nuked into submission and then subjected to an occupation that, in some practical senses, remains in place. (The formal occupation ended in 1952.) In different ways and along different lines, the U.S.-led postwar coalition tore Japan and Germany down to their foundations and built something better than what either had been before—if there is a good case for imperialism, that is it. The civilized world was able to do that not only because it had the material resources but because it had the necessary moral context, founded in the understanding that there must be a high price to pay for starting a war of the sort Germany and Japan were guilty of initiating if we are to discourage similar aggression in the future.
There will be a time to consider the necessity of setting such an example in the case of Russia and its allies, Iran among them, in the not very distant future. U.S. foreign-policy thinkers, whose defining defect traditionally has not been timidity or excessive humility, have overcorrected in the wake of the failures and disappointments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and much of the discussion assumes that the choice before Washington is to advocate one model of perilous stalemate or a different model of perilous stalemate. We should be thinking bigger—and bolder. These are very long-term projects, of course, and long term projects are how big things get done: There’s a reason we still have 25,000 troops in Japan.
In the short term, Iranian drones are destroying grain that could be used to feed hungry Iranian people. This is an invitation to highlight the internal contradictions of the Iranian position, and to teach a lesson that will—if taught thoroughly—be remembered.