January 30, 2006 | Commentary on Department of Homeland Security

How Iran Buys Friends

Masterfully pitting the East versus the West, this week Iran is once again likely to slip the noose over its nuclear (weapons) program - avoiding a vote of the International Atomic Energy Agency's Board of Governors, meeting in emergency session in Vienna, to refer the Iran case to the U.N. Security Council.

It really should come as no surprise.

Why this failure of the best efforts of the United States and the European Union to heel Iran's atomic aspirations? Tehran is countering via increasingly cozy relationships with China, Russia and India.

And why are Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi dragging their feet on dealing decisively with Iran's nuclear program? Raw self-interest.

Take China: Now perhaps the world's No. 4 economy, China is also the No. 2 energy consumer - scouring the globe for new energy sources to stoke a decade of double-digit economic growth. And Iran is now China's third-largest oil supplier.

Moreover, China has invested nearly $100 billion in developing Iranian oil/gas fields. By some estimates, Iran will provide China with over 250 million tons of natural gas and 150,000 barrels of crude oil per day over the next 30 years.

Plus, Iran buys Chinese conventional weapons, including anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-tank missiles - and technology and equipment for WMDs and ballistic missiles, such as missile control/guidance systems, chemical-weapon precursors and nuclear materials and technology.

Iran is also a commercial cash cow for China. Chinese firms are building Tehran's billion-dollar subway system. And Beijing plans to invest over $200 million to help finance a new highway connecting Tehran to the Caspian Sea coast; other projects are in the works.

And, strategically speaking, Beijing certainly doesn't mind keeping the United States off balance in the Middle East with a nuclear-armed Iran (plus Iraq, Afghanistan and war on terror) while the People's Republic increases its influence in Asia, Africa and even Latin America.

Russia is also heavily vested in Iran. Moscow is trying to broker a self-serving deal to supply and reprocess uranium for Iranian reactors, ostensibly preventing Tehran from turning nuke fuel into bomb material. Iran isn't sold on it yet; the next round of talks is Feb. 16.

Russia has already built a $1 billion nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr, and Tehran has expressed interest in two to three more reactors. Actually, it's considering building more than 100 nuclear reactors in the years ahead. Russia unquestionably wants a cut of that fat action . . .

A security relationship exists, too. In December - to our horror - Russia agreed to sell Iran $1 billion in arms, including $700 million worth of advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the TOR-M1.

Each TOR unit is capable of tracking 48 bogies and firing at two targets at the same time. The SAMs pose a deadly threat to aircraft involved in any strike against the tens of Iranian nuclear-related targets, including the high-value sites at Bushehr, Natanz, Arak and Isfahan.

Reportedly, Moscow and Tehran have also discussed the sale of billions of dollars of other weapons, including more diesel submarines, air-defense systems and anti-ship missiles - and fighters, ground-to-ground missiles and armored infantry vehicles.

India has its own stake in the Iranian nuclear standoff: Delhi's developing economy also craves access to world energy supplies. Iran and India, along with Pakistan, have agreed to build a $7 billion pipeline to move Iranian natural gas to India via Pakistan.

The pipeline would ease India's energy crunch by delivering affordable gas, while providing impoverished Pakistan with much-needed transit-fee income. The joint project might improve always testy Indo-Pakistani relations, too.

While India, along with 21 others, voted last September in favor of referring Iran from the IAEA to the UNSC, Delhi's stance has softened. (Abetting Iran's atomic ambitions may come with a high price, such as scuttling congressional support for a pending U.S.-India civilian-nuclear-cooperation pact - and forget about gaining a permanent Security Council seat . . .)

Also working against U.S.-E.U. efforts is the fact that an IAEA report on Iranian cooperation with IAEA inspectors isn't due before March. This - and the pending Russian deal - make decisive IAEA action this week improbable.

On the merits, this should (finally!) be the week for referring Iran to the Security Council for tougher measures such as punitive economic sanctions. But the diplomatic stars may not yet be quite aligned in our favor.

Worse: The same self-serving national interests make it less likely that Beijing/Moscow/Delhi will support action when and if we go to the mat at the United Nations over Iran.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. His book, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," is just out.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in the New York Post