January 26, 2008

January 26, 2008 | Commentary on Middle East

The Real World: Big powers, limp sanctions

A mountain of diplomacy has given birth to a molehill of sanctions. After months of negotiations, the troika (United States, China and Russia), as well as the EU-3, (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany) approved a draft U.N. Security Council resolution which will fail to introduce new significant sanctions against Iran over its uranium enrichment program.

According to Russian foreign ministry sources, the United States will join with other members of the diplomatic sextet to negotiate directly with Tehran -- a win for Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other hardliners on the eve of important Iranian parliamentary elections scheduled for March.

The U.S., the UK, France, and Germany, obviously failed to persuade the spoilers, China and Russia, to put some teeth into the third set of sanctions against Iran, which is quickly arming itself. Thus far, Ahmadinejad has been laughing all the way to the nuclear reactor, and any serious punishments have been left out of the final version of the resolution.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the resolution will not introduce any new economic sanctions. Apparently, firm language against the Iranian state banking sector in earlier versions did not make to the final draft. It had been assumed that existing punitive measures like travel bans and the freezing of assets would be expanded by this latest draft resolution.

Instead, U.S. sources have chosen to brag about the "close cooperation" between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Lavrov after a deep freeze in U.S.-Russian relations, which became particularly pronounced in the wake of President Vladimir Putin having given Rice and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates the cold shoulder in Moscow.

Clearly, the softened sanctions in the resolution are the result of the December 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran

Following the release of the report, Russia and China could easily point fingers at the U.S.'s own intelligence community, which effectively announced that it does not see a military threat from the Iranian nuclear program, despite the fact that, as Washington has been pointing out, Iran's uranium enrichment activities can have military applications and need to be accounted for or stopped.

But it is the Russian and Chinese opposition which defanged the sanctions, possibly terminally. Commenting on the approved draft resolution, Lavrov was quoted by Itar-Tass as follows:

"We received a text of the resolution that differs from the initial requests of our Western partners.... Their demands actually ran in the vein of punishing Iran, not supporting the International Atomic Energy Agency in clearing all the blank spots of Iran's nuclear activities in the past.... This resolution meets all the criteria underlying our cooperation... namely it envisions the involvement of the U.N. Security Council with the view of assisting the regime of non-proliferation, not for any political purposes."

Discussing Iran in his first major presidential campaign speech, Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that Russia's relations with Iran will not be affected. Moscow just completed the fourth scheduled uranium shipment to the Russian-built Bushehr reactor, which, thanks to the Kremlin's efforts, is not covered by the U.N. sanctions.

It is not surprising that the Russian and Chinese unwillingness to join the Western powers in imposing more severe sanctions against Iran have been noted and praised by Tehran. It appears that Moscow views Iran as a strategic partner, deserving of strong diplomatic protection.

As one astute observer noted recently, Russia's close partnership with Iran is founded on the fact that the Middle Eastern power is a lucrative market for Russian weapons, nuclear power plants, and above all, a stage from which the Kremlin can launch Russia into the galaxy of world powers by opposing the West over Iran.

Supporting Iran helps forward the multi-polar world order conceptualized after the collapse of the Soviet Union by the foreign Russian Prime Minister and spymaster Yevgeny Primakov in the early 1990s. Russia (and China) want an international system which dilutes the might of the last superpower and its allies.

Tehran recently asked for Gazprom and Russian oil companies to help develop not just oil and gas fields but also the Iranian energy infrastructure, including pipelines and refineries. This is tens of billions of dollars in business. Hence, Russian support for Iran is founded on a combination of massive economic and geopolitical interests that support the Kremlin's overarching goal -- to be a dominant player in Eurasia and the Middle East at the expense of U.S. and Western interests.

How the Western failure will now play out in Tehran is an interesting question. Some say it will strengthen the hardliners, who are claiming victory over U.S. President George W. Bush and have succeeded in banning 3,000 parliamentary candidates from running in the March elections. Many of the banned are friends or allies of the reformers, including former ex-cabinet ministers who served under Iran's President Muhammad Khatami and MPs.

However, as the military threat to Iran is subsiding, Ahmadinejad's many opponents may begin pointing fingers at his abysmal economic track record, unfulfilled promises, and lack of strategic vision for Iran. Can Ahmadinejad become a victim of his own foreign policy success? If so, it will happen because of U.S. ineptitude, not because of his cunning.

Whether Ahmadinejad ultimately profits or loses, the results of this latest round of sanctions negotiations indicates not only the strengthening of Russia, China and Iran on the world stage, but the weakening of American resolve and the ability of the U.S. to confront dangerous bullies in bad neighborhoods amidst the widening economic recession and an unpredictable presidential campaign.


Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and senior adviser to the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the Middle East Times