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Iran exports the resource curse

As the world watches Iran, one unexpected country is paying particularly acute attention: Uganda. That country's oil-exporting future lies -- for now at least -- in the hands of whoever sits in power in Tehran.

The country's President Yoweri Museveni recently concluded talks with Iran's President Mahmood Ahmadinejad for the  construction of an oil refinery in the East African country. At least some of the funding for the refinery will come from Iran (reports vary on how much -- for example here and here). Tehran also promised to instruct Ugandans at its University of Petroleum Studies and invest throughout the oil pumping chain.

Uganda is a newcomer to the world of oil export. Its resources, now estimated at 2 billion barrells (Iran, by comparison, has reserves of about 130 billion), are just now beginning to come online. The deal with Iran is aimed at making the country's oil industry self-sufficient and value added; unlike other exporters on the continent such as Nigeria, crude oil will be refined in country and sent as a finished product for export. In theory, that could save the country some money -- and the need to ironically re-import its own gasoline. But some wonder if the refinery, at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, will really be cost effective for a country looking to pump out just 100,000 barrels per day.

Either way, it's somewhat disconcerting to imagine Uganda following in Iran's path as an energy giant. The behemoth of oil revenues failed to improve the country's lot last year; and instead, economic calamity set in. If Uganda looks to that example, Iran's election outcome isn't the only gamble in the country's future. 

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Does it really matter that much what Obama says about Iran?

I'm beginning to think that the real Obama effect is the process by which any issue, international or domestic, comes to be discussed primarily in terms of how it relates to the president.

I'm glad Obama publicly stated his support for the protesters in Iran today. It was the right thing to do. But I don't really anticipate either action significantly changing the dynamic of the situation in Iran. It's not as if the demonstrators were waiting for Obama to tell them they are "on the right side of history.” And the Iranian government obviously doesn't really care much about winning Obama's approval.

When Fox News's Major Garett asked Obama "What took you so long?", I had to wonder what he (or John McCain) thinks would have transpired differently if Obama had made a similarly strong-worded statement a week ago. 

I haven't yet seen any indication that the Iranian opposition really wants Obama to say more. Mousavi's international spokesman may have criticized Obama in an interview with FP last week for comparing Mousavi to Ahmadinejad, but he never said that more vigorous support would be welcome, despite how some others have characterized the statement.

The heads of a number of states, including France, Germany, and Canada, have already publicly questioned the elections results and voiced support for the protesters, but I haven't seen any examples of opposition leaders or protesters mentioning this support. 

On the other hand, the argument of Obama's defenders that stronger support would imperil the protesters seems a little unconvincing as well. Iran's leaders have never lacked for pretexts under which to blame foreign meddling for internal dissent. The government was blaming the U.S. for interfering in this election before Obama had said a word. I'm not sure I understand why they're any more or less likely to crack down or make concessions based on what the U.S. president says. 

The fact of the matter is that the United States doesn't have a whole lot of diplomatic leverage or ability to influence what's going on in Iraq right now. The Obama administration still has to face the question of whether the likely fraudulence of Ahmadinejad's victory should change the approach to nuclear negotiations, but that seems like a question that can be addressed down the road. This latest round of the engagement vs. confrontation debate is becoming becomign increasingly tiresome and less pertinent to events outside the beltway. 

(For the record, inviting Iranian diplomats to a White House Fourth of July party is a terrible idea. The White House might not be able to talk the regime out of abusing their own people, but that doesn't mean they should have them over for barbecue.)