In Defense of Smugglers, and Oman

Something about this NY Times piece on Oman’s smugglers touched a sympathetic chord in me. I’m pretty tolerant towards the idea of smugglers and the black market, in general, especially for things like refrigerators and TV sets. To begin with, smugglers fill a crucial subversive role that keeps even the most legitimate of governments honest. But in this case, the Omani smugglers aren’t just contravening Western sanctions against Iran. They’re also contravening Iranian law. So whatever harm they’re doing to efforts to isolate Iran are, to my mind, balanced by the harm they’re doing to the Iranian regime’s credibility.

That — the subversive value of smugglers, that is — goes double in times of repression or occupation, by the way. In the same way that insurgencies often morph into organized crime at the tail end of an occupation, organized crime networks are often the first to carry out acts of resistance in the initial phases of one. These guys running contraband into Iran on skiffs today are the same ones who will be running guns into Oman in the event Iran does overrun the place, which the Omanis seem to have some concerns about.

As for the article’s broader discussion of Oman’s refusal to take sides either for or against Iran, I think that kind of posture, too, plays a vital role in international relations. In addition to believing that globalization has rendered isolation as an instrument of statescraft obsolete, I also think that isolation is just plain wrong. Contact between peoples should be encouraged, not discouraged. And commerce is one of the most enduring forms of contact between peoples. We should be thinking about how to take advantage of the ties Oman has to Iran, not stifle them.

On a related note, it appears that not only has Henry de Monfreid’s classic smuggling memoir, Confessions of a Red Sea Smuggler, been reissued, it’s also gotten its original title back.

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