Analyze this: How to turn the heat up (or down) on Iran without blowing hot air

How to turn heat up (or down) on Iran without blowing hot air.

It's cold here in Israel, cold enough to freeze some homeless people in the streets, and cold enough also that those fortunate to be sitting in warm homes are having to dig deep into their pockets to pay for hefty gas bills this winter. Still, it could be worse. It's colder still in parts of Iran, especially the northern half, and many of the people there are finding that even if they have the money, there's simply no gas to be had. In Iran - the country with the second-highest (after Russia) proven natural gas reserves in the world, an astonishing 971 trillion cubic feet - How can that be? Because while Iran has plenty of gas and oil, it doesn't have a sufficient energy infrastructure to deliver it, even to its own people. Thus, many of the Iranians living in the nation's northern regions are actually dependent on gas pumped in from neighboring Turkmenistan to make it through the winter. The problem is, Turkmenistan stopped gas shipments to Iran last month, and some people are starting to get very, very cold. Turkmenistan blames the shutdown on technical problems, and says it hasn't been able to fund needed pipe repairs because of Teheran's failure to pay its bills on time. "Oil Ministry ready to weather frost" reads the optimistic headline in the Iranian English-language daily Tehran Times - although it goes on to quote Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi's plea that "All gas consumers are asked to save gas as much as possible, in a bid to help supply all fellow countrymen in the remotest areas of the country with the commodity." President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad toured Iran's chilly north this weekend, pledging to deal with the situation. But that, according to AFP, hasn't stopped him from weathering attacks over the issue in Parliament: "Mr. President, do you know how my constituency's people have lived without the least heating equipment and in the worst and most difficult conditions?" asked Vali Rayaat, MP from the northern city of Ghaemshahr. "We don't want oil money. Supply gas!" Despite Ahmadinejad's recent bluster over the incident in the Gulf between Iran gunships and US naval vessels, the gas crisis in Iran's north is a sign of the underlying economic weakness of his regime. How ironic also that Israel, with almost no natural oil or gas reserves of its own, is able to supply its own citizens with heating fuel, even if it's at a relatively high price. Lately though, when it comes to the Iran issue, we may be generating a little too much heat. For example, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert certainly made headlines with his comment Monday at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that "Regarding the threat of a nuclear Iran, all options are on the table." The question is: Why would he want to make those statements at this time? In the past, Olmert has publicly told his ministers to be more circumspect in their comments about Iran's nuclear program, especially concerning any possibility of a military response. Privately, he has said it is better to let the US take the rhetorical lead on this issue. To then speak out so forthrightly, especially at a time when US President George W. Bush is touring the region and directing his own tough talk to Teheran, seems something of an odd choice. No wonder that Defense Minister Ehud Barak said later in the day there should be fewer words and more action regarding Iran, commenting: "At the moment, there's enough talk. Words are not going to stop missiles." Of course, we certainly don't know everything the PM knows about Iran. But there are some things we all know about his current political position - and the fact that any headline that bears Olmert's name these days, has nothing to do with the Winograd Report, and, better yet, helps him burnish his security credentials, certainly does him some favors. Playing politics with the Iran issue? Heaven forbid. In the meantime, though, the Strategic Affairs Ministry - supposedly set up to deal with the Iran threat, but largely a meaningless title designed to get Avigdor Lieberman into the cabinet and his Israel Beiteinu party into the coalition - looks set to vanish if the party goes ahead and leaves the government this week as expected. Presumably, despite this loss, the nation's strategic affairs on Iran and other issues will continue to be managed by those in government whose job it is to do so. But Barak is surely right that rather than talking about unlimited options, officials should publicly focus, for the time being, on strengthening diplomatic and economic sanctions targeting Iran's radical Islamist regime. As Iran's current gas shortage illustrates, opportunities exist to haul Ahmadinejad over the coals as the thermometer drops across his country. So when it comes to Iran, more talk about heating gas - and less hot air about "unlimited options" - is what's needed these chilly winter days. [email protected]