June 2, 2006

June 2, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Iran's friends prevent progress

When you live in a tough neighborhood, it's important to have friends -- and the Middle East is one of the world's toughest neighborhoods. So on one level, it makes sense that Iran has gone out of its way to cultivate friendships with some of the world's most powerful countries.

But Tehran's choice of friends also helps explain why it's so difficult for the United States to use the United Nations to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran has cultivated close ties with Russia and China to counterbalance its increasingly tense relations with the United States and Europe. Russia and China not only provide Iran with diplomatic protection at the U.N. Security Council -- where both enjoy veto power -- but they assist Iran's nuclear power program, which masks Iran's efforts to attain a nuclear-weapons capability.

The relationship benefits Russia and China, too. Iran has become an important market for their exports of arms and advanced military technology, a useful check on American influence in the Middle East, a potential ally against the United States and a growing source of energy cooperation.

Iran is now the third-largest oil supplier to China's oil-thirsty economy. Moreover, China is investing over the next 25 years nearly $100 billion in developing Iranian oil and gas fields. By some estimates, Iran will provide China with some 250 million tons of natural gas and 150,000 barrels of crude oil per day over the next 30 years.

In return, Iran buys Chinese arms, including anti-ship cruise missiles, naval mines and anti-tank missiles, as well as technology and equipment for WMDs and ballistic missiles, such as missile-control/guidance systems, chemical-weapon precursors and nuclear materials and technology.

For its part, Russia has sold Iran billions of dollars' worth of tanks, armored personnel carriers, warplanes, missiles, submarines and other military equipment. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that between 1994 and 2004 Russia sold Iran nearly $3 billion in arms -- almost 70 percent of its total arms imports. China was second to Russia in arms sales, providing about 20 percent of Iran's arms purchases.

Moscow and Beijing also enjoy using Tehran to balance Washington's power.

Iran has distracted the United States from China's military buildup, obstructed American efforts to build a stable democracy in Iraq and supported terrorist groups opposed to peace with Israel, such as Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Iran's disruptive influence also undermines American efforts to build a stable, peaceful Middle East, while the People's Republic is increasing its influence in Asia, Africa and even Latin America.

As for nukes, it's no wonder Russia and China have little interest in halting Iran's program, since they're helping to build it.

Russia is training Iranian nuclear technicians and is building Iran's $1 billion nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Tehran has expressed interest in building more reactors, which could become a further lucrative boost for the Russian nuclear industry.
To avoid this problem, the Bush administration is considering imposing sanctions outside the U.N. framework by working with European allies, Japan and other countries that seek a more effective response to Iran's outlaw nuclear-weapons program.

But even that may be difficult. In addition to Russia and China, Italy, Germany, Japan and France all have extensive business ties with Iran. Clearly, obtaining international support for strong economic sanctions against Iran will be a struggle, even outside the U.N. framework.

The United States ultimately may have to settle for targeted sanctions against the Iranian regime. These sanctions could include limiting foreign travel and freezing the assets of Iran's leaders, sanctioning foreign banks that do business in Iran, banning foreign sales of military arms and dual-use technology, or restricting future foreign investment in Iran. These small steps won't be as effective as full-scale sanctions might be, but Washington may have to take what it can get.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers for addressing Iran's recalcitrance over its nuclear program, only tough choices. One thing is clear: Doing nothing about Iran's atomic aspirations isn't an option. If Tehran goes nuclear, it will directly threaten the U.S. and Israel as well as other friends and allies.

But with a nuclear arsenal, Iran also may consider itself powerful enough to eventually turn on its current friends as well. That's a scenario Russia and China ought to consider before they give Iran a pass at the Security Council.

James Phillips is a research fellow and Peter Brookes is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

James Phillips Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy