Edition 43 Volume 7 - December 03, 2024

Iran's sanctions dilemma: Russian, EU and Pakistani perspectives

Europeans united but gloomy on the Iranian nuclear front -   Ian Black

Europeans tend to feel that Obama's "outreach" to Iran went too far too fast.

Pakistan's dilemma in UN sanctions on Iran -   Irfan Husain

Pakistan's political and military considerations would make it a reluctant partner in any tough new sanctions imposed on Iran.

A communality of geopolitical interests -   N. M. Mamedova

In the event of upheaval, Iran's fragmentation would inevitably aggravate the situation in Russia's southern border territories.

The illusion of an alliance -   Sadegh Zibakalam

Both countries believe their alliance is more one of circumstance than of geopolitical necessity.

Europeans united but gloomy on the Iranian nuclear front
 Ian Black

European governments are maintaining a united public position as the long-running crisis over Iran's nuclear program slouches toward its next stage. But behind closed doors the EU's "big three" are deeply pessimistic about prospects for a deal with Tehran.

Policy remains the "two-track" pursuit of negotiations coupled with discussion of sanctions, now certain to intensify. The remark by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner that Iran faces a "last chance" captures the western mood succinctly. Britain's foreign secretary David Miliband chose instead to advertise "the calm, determination and unity of the international community" in response to Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's provocative announcement of plans to build 10 more uranium enrichment plants.

"Unity" may be over-stating the case. Russian and especially Chinese backing for censure of Iran over its Qom reactor by the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency on November 27 will not automatically mean continued UN Security Council unanimity on next steps. Ahmadinezhad's new reactors should, in theory, make it easier to maintain a united front when US President Barack Obama's pledge of unspecified "consequences" for a non-compliant Iran comes to be tested. But the immediate response from Beijing was to call for dialogue, not sanctions.

Recent messages to Iran have been carefully crafted to send coaxing signals rather than slam doors: thus the low-key "disappointment" expressed by the E3 + 3 (Britain, France, Germany, the US, Russia and China) in Brussels after Iran's apparent rejection of the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) plan to transfer low-enriched uranium to France and Russia for processing into fuel.

Miliband's statement on November 29 was a subtle blend of sorrow and anger but crucially reiterated acceptance of Iran's right to civil nuclear energy under the NPT. Germany's FM Guido Westerwelle took a harder line by warning explicitly of further sanctions "if Iran rejects the outstretched hand of the international community".

Calibrated comments are the bread and butter of professional diplomats, but in private, European assessments of prospects for agreement are blunt. In Britain, the dominant official view is that the complexities of Iran's domestic politics mean Ahmadinezhad cannot engage on the nuclear issue, even if he wanted to. Pressure from Majlis speaker Ali Larijani and conservatives in the Majlis; from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the revolutionary guards; and from an opposition trying to maintain the momentum of protests over June's disputed election--mean he has little room to maneuver. If a nuclear deal is tantamount to rapprochement with the West, particularly with the US, and the regime sees rapprochement as a threat to its survival, it is not going to happen.

Thus the enrichment plants announcement--which appeared to make little economic or technical sense--was seen in European capitals as a consequence of Ahmadinezhad's need to outflank domestic opponents. Vacillation over the TRR deal--illustrated by conflicting statements around the Vienna talks--was similarly explained by internal Iranian differences. Geoffrey Adams, recently-appointed political director at Britain's foreign office (in effect the UK's chief nuclear negotiator) was until earlier this year ambassador to Tehran and has direct experience of the interplay between domestic and international issues.

Europeans tend to feel that Obama's "outreach" to Iran went too far too fast without seeing any return. That perception will affect their responses to the president's promised policy "reassessment" at year's end. So will detailed work on sanctions and their effect on the internal situation in Iran. What is unlikely to change in Europe is adamant opposition to any military action, by the US or Israel.

It is worth recalling that EU involvement with the Iranian nuclear issue began with a rare display of unity by Britain, France and Germany in October 2024, when the bitter divisions of the Iraq war were a recent memory. Now, as the Lisbon treaty comes into force, the EU's capacity for collective action should be enhanced by the appointment of a president and, more significantly, a "high representative for foreign and security policy" (foreign minister in Brussels-speak) with enhanced powers and resources.

Javier Solana, a big figure who has clocked up many Tehran-hours, is being replaced by the little-known Cathy Ashton, previously EU trade commissioner. Ashton got the job because she is British, politically on the centre-left and a woman--rather than for any experience relevant to the most intractable and volatile item on the current international agenda. If the pessimists are right about Iran and the sanctions bandwagon gathers speed, she and the EU will have little contribution to make.- Published 3/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ian Black is Middle East editor for The Guardian newspaper.

Pakistan's dilemma in UN sanctions on Iran
 Irfan Husain

As the world edges toward tough new sanctions on Iran in a last-ditch attempt to thwart the country's nuclear ambitions, Pakistan's security establishment is mulling over its options.

The reality is that with a hostile India on its eastern border and a war raging on both sides of its frontier with Afghanistan, the last thing Pakistan needs is an angry Iran to the west. New UN sanctions would place an intolerable burden on Pakistan's relations with Iran.

These ties were recently strained by the Jundullah attack that killed over 40 Iranians, including several high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officers. In the wake of the terrorist atrocity by the extremist Sunni group, Iran accused Pakistan of sheltering the killers at America's behest and threatened it would exercise its right of hot pursuit. Pakistan's consistent support of the Sunni Taliban has been a major irritant between Islamabad and Tehran for years.

Against this backdrop, for Pakistan to support tough new sanctions against Iran would cause the country's beleaguered army a huge headache. And yet, the reality is that without Pakistan's active cooperation, any new sanctions would fail. With a long, open border dividing the country, there are already enormous amounts of contraband moving back and forth. Sanctions-busting traders on both sides would profit, and Islamabad would turn a blind eye to the traffic.

One only has to visit Gawadur, Pakistan's coastal town near the Iranian border, to realize the scale of the smuggling. In the market here, locals can buy everything from frozen chickens to crockery from Iran. Carried on pick-up trucks that drive up and down the flat, hard beach connecting the two countries along the coast, there are virtually no restrictions on this trade placed by either country.

In the vast Pakistani province of Balochistan bordering Iran, the petrol sold is usually from Iran, smuggled across in tankers, as it's cheaper because of subsidies compared to Pakistan's heavily taxed petroleum products.

With these close and long-standing cross-border trading links, it would take a major policing effort to seal the frontier. And given how unpopular any new sanctions on Iran would be in Pakistan, it is doubtful if the current weak civilian government could muster the political will to crack down on the smugglers, most of whom enjoy a degree of semi-official protection.

No doubt the Americans would apply pressure on President Asif Zardari to cooperate, but they realize his limitations and they need Pakistan to focus on its ongoing battle on its Afghan border. The last thing the Pakistan army wants to be told by its allies is that it now has to move troops to its Iranian border.

It is likely that the new sanctions will seek to squeeze Iranian exports of crude oil, and its imports of refined petroleum products. Under normal circumstances, this would bring the Iranian economy to its knees. But even if the Americans seek to implement this policy by imposing a naval blockade, Iran could circumvent it by bringing tankers over land to Gawadur. The port here was recently built by the Chinese, and can handle significant volumes of merchandise. This would probably be the key transit point for any sanctions busting.

Even though Iran is no longer considered by Pakistan's military establishment as close a friend and ally as it was when ruled by the Shah, it remains a model for many Pakistanis. Although they might not share the Shi'ite belief that guides the ayatollahs, they think an Islamic revolution is what Pakistan needs. In a conflict that pits America and Israel against their Muslim neighbor, there are no prizes for guessing where public sentiment would lie.

As it is, Zardari is viewed as an American puppet, and for him to be seen as supporting the hated Americans and Israelis against Iran would trigger a storm of protest. Many Pakistanis think it hypocritical for the West to accept Israel's nuclear arsenal while denying a Muslim country its own nuclear deterrent.

Thus, Pakistan's political and military considerations would make it a reluctant partner in any tough new sanctions imposed on Iran. And yet, no sanctions can succeed in seriously hurting the Iranian economy if Pakistan is not fully on board.

Finally, Iran has served as a sanctuary for Pakistani military and civilian aircraft during its past wars with India. It has also been a conduit for arms and spare parts in these conflicts. It would be difficult for Pakistan's military planners to forego the strategic depth its neighbor has provided in the past and might again. For them to alienate the Revolutionary Guard at this crucial juncture is almost unthinkable.

In case sanctions and a possible naval blockade escalate into a shooting war, Pakistan's dilemma would be even more acute. There is no way the government would allow Americans to use its territory in a military campaign. Planners in Tel Aviv and Washington need to be aware of Pakistan's sensibilities and strategic considerations before getting into a situation that further destabilizes Pakistan and the region.- Published 3/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Irfan Husain writes two columns a week for Dawn, Pakistan's widest circulating and most influential daily. After a career in the civil service spanning 30 years, he was president of a university in Pakistan for five years. He now divides his time between England and Pakistan.

A communality of geopolitical interests
 N. M. Mamedova

Relations between Russia and Iran have developed in recent years through an underlying communality of geopolitical interests. It is based on the need to maintain stability in Central Asia and the Caucasus and the desire to forestall further separatist tendencies in the two multiethnic countries.

While Tehran has taken a wait-and-see attitude toward recognition of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, during the actual conflict there it virtually backed Moscow. Moscow and Tehran are objectively interested in countering both the mightily strengthened economic clout of China and US attempts to reroute the flow of goods from Central Asian countries to Asian markets via Afghanistan.

This said, one can hardly speak of a strategic partnership between our countries. True, such a partnership could increase Russia's chances to enlarge its sphere of influence to the Gulf sub-region. Yet the political risks arising from an alliance with a nation currently in confrontation with the world's leading countries outweigh possible dividends.

Cooperation through regional organizations remains more effective for Russia. The Eurasian Economic Community is the most well-established organization working in the Central Asia and Caucasus regions, and it cannot be ruled out that Iran will get involved in its work. At present, cooperation is implemented within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization where Iran was admitted as an observer in 2024.

For Russia, Iran is an advantageous economic partner enjoying significant potential and a sufficiently diversified economy. Despite the unfolding crisis, Iran remains a solvent state: as of early 2024, its reserves stood at $81.7 billion, i.e., more than a quarter of GDP, while foreign debt amounted to just 6.3 percent of GDP. Russia is interested in trade with Iran, which allows it to diversify its exports, while Iran's interest in Russia is conditioned both by economic ties established for many decades and by sanctions currently being imposed that curtail the presence of American and European companies in the Iranian market. Russia, which acts as a raw material supplier to the world market, supplies to Iran chiefly its industrial products and sci-tech services.

But Iran's share in Russian foreign trade is extremely small--less than one percent, despite the dynamics of its growth. In 2024, the trade turnover between our countries totaled $3.7 billion, mostly accounted for by Russian exports ($3.3 billion). Iran is one of the principal markets for Russia's military technological products. While observing its international obligations, Russia supplies Iran with defensive equipment. In 2024-2009, an agreement to supply Iran S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems aroused great anxiety on the part of Israel and the United States, but the shipment has not yet been made. Judging by publications in the Iranian mass media, Tehran is extremely dissatisfied with delays in S-300 shipments. On the one hand, these delays can be used to pressure Iran to scale back the development of its nuclear program. But there is also a small possibility that, in response, Iran would support radical Islamists in the North Caucasus--a scenario fraught with great danger for Russia.

For Russia (and earlier the USSR) it is not trade but economic cooperation that has always been of the utmost significance. The main focus of Russo-Iranian cooperation is on energy projects. The nuclear power plant in Bushehr was practically completed in 2024, fueling is now coming to an end and the plant's start-up is in the offing. Fresh contracts for nuclear power plant construction have not been concluded, however. The main accent in energy dialogue has been placed on cooperation in the production and distribution of electricity and in the generation of energy resources and their means of transport.

The oil and gas industry is a promising area of cooperation. In the Iranian oil and gas market itself, the presence of Russian companies remains limited, but negotiations are actively proceeding on joint development of new phases of the South Pars gas deposit and on the creation of joint ventures with the participation of third countries. Once the world economic crisis ends and demand and gas prices begin to grow, routes for bringing gas to world markets will take on particular relevance. Russia at present deems it most reasonable to use Turkmen gas to fill the Caspian project and the South Stream. But in the absence of competitors in the Iranian market, it may be promising to share in the use of Iranian gas--both in these projects and in the Nabucco pipeline. Iran is likewise extremely interested in export routes, as almost a third of the gas it produces is being injected into wells, a part is burned and gas is used chiefly for internal consumption. Pipelines built to take gas to Turkey and Armenia have not resolved export problems.

There are promising prospects for Russian participation in construction and reconstruction of Iranian railroad lines and cooperation in the field of air transportation, including Iranian purchase of licenses for the assembly of aircraft and helicopters. But on the whole, the volume of Russo-Iranian cooperation and foreign trade is small and lags behind the level of political relations.

Despite positive momentum in the development of Russo-Iranian ties that some Iranian officials characterize as strategic, many problems in our relations remain unsettled. Due to Iran's position, the issue of defining the status of the Caspian Sea has not been resolved. Certainly, closer political and economic contacts are hindered by Iran's lingering confrontation with Europe and the United States--both important economic partners for Russia. This being so, reliance on the anti-American factor in bilateral relations cannot be considered a central factor. Indeed, in Iran it is often written that Russia is an unreliable partner as it yields to US pressure (e.g., delaying construction and commissioning of the Bushehr reactor, retarding shipments of S-300s and joining in United Nations Security Council sanctions).

It is regarding the Iranian nuclear program that Russia finds it most difficult to take decisions. To be sure, Russia has no interest in having a new nuclear power on its borders. But in view of the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, forceful action against Iran may have even more negative consequences. Certainly, at the present time, when lasting progress in the negotiating process has not been reached, the most preferable option for Russia would be for Iran to sign an additional IAEA protocol. Had Iran not concealed the construction of a new plant for the enrichment of five percent uranium in Qom, Russia would have had more confidence in its nuclear program. The very fact of this concealment, given existing contacts between Russia and Iran in nuclear energy development, could not but cast a shadow over Russia's relations with the international community as well.

Despite Tehran's critique of Russia's position, Moscow remains Iran's principal defender in the matter of economic sanctions, although China, which has a much greater economic stake in Iran, is more interested in alleviating pressure there than any other state. The argument that Moscow seeks to drag out the existing standoff due to the softening of competition in the energy market does not stand up to criticism. What is more important for Russia is to preserve Iran's stability. In the event of a military strike or revolutionary upheaval, Iran's fragmentation would inevitably aggravate the situation in Russia's southern border territories.

Generally speaking, for Russia the two countries' interest in broadening political and economic ties outweighs the existing contradictions.- Published 3/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

N. M. Mamedova heads the Department of Iranian Studies, Oriental Studies Institute, Moscow, and is a professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

The illusion of an alliance
 Sadegh Zibakalam

Observers of Iran must be baffled by the "death to Russia" slogan that many Iranians shout at their rallies and street demonstrations. Ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 the familiar slogans have been "death to the US", "death to Israel" and occasionally the call for "death to Britain" or another European power. Never in 30 years had Iranians called for "death to Russia". The same applies to China. Iranians are now calling "death to China" in their protests against their own government.

This is a curious development that has indeed surprised many observers. Why have so many Iranians, most of whom are educated professionals, turned against Russia? There are two sets of underlying reasons for growing Iranian disappointment with Russia.

The first concerns the opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad's government. Many Iranians blame the Russians for masterminding the brutal suppression that followed the controversial Iranian presidential elections in June. When the results of that election were announced by the government, many Iranians poured onto the streets of Tehran and other cities and disputed Ahmadinezhad's victory. The government responded by brutally suppressing the unrest. Dozens were killed and many of Ahmadinezhad's critics were detained and are still in prison.

The government accused the opposition of trying to wage a so-called "velvet revolution" with the help of the US and Britain. Rumors began to circulate in Tehran that Russian security advisors had strongly recommended to Iranian leaders to stand firm against any protests by the opposition and to swiftly and thoroughly disperse any gathering by the people in order to avoid a repeat of what happened in some of the former communist states following their general elections. Whether or not such recommendations had actually been made by Russians to Iranian security officials is inconsequential; Iranians assume that was the case.

In addition, protesters generally tended to oppose the Islamic regime's friends and allies at the international level, viewing them as the enemy. These included the Lebanese Shi'ite leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah and the Palestinians. During Quds protest rallies, where Iranians had hitherto supported the Palestinians and condemned Israel, hundreds and thousands of protesters chanted the strange new slogan, "neither Gaza nor Lebanon, my life for Iran". Correspondingly, protesters viewed the regime's enemies as friends, or at least not as enemies. Thus instead of the traditional slogans of "death to America" and "death to Israel" they called for "death to Russia and China".

The June election was not the only reason for Iranians to turn away from Russia. Many Iranians who are in fact supporters of the regime have also become increasingly disappointed with Moscow's policies toward Iran. Russia's treatment of the Iranian nuclear program and its strategy in the Caspian Sea are the two fundamental reasons for this hostility toward Iran's northern neighbor.

Iranians feel that Moscow has always used the nuclear issue as a bargaining tool to win concessions from the West while simultaneously convincing Iran that it has prevented the 5+1 from passing severe sanctions against it. In short, Moscow has exploited the nuclear crisis to obtain economic and political benefits from both Iran and the West.

Then there is Iranian concern over Moscow's approach to the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Construction of the plant was begun by Germany before the Islamic Revolution. It was about 90 percent complete when the revolution took place; the Germans left the country and subsequently refused to complete it. In the late 1990s, Russia signed a contract with Iran to finish the plant. After more than a decade and billions of dollars of payments to the Russians, there are no signs the plant is being completed. More than a dozen times the Russians have set a date to begin operating the plant, only to postpone yet again.

This happened most recently this November. This time, however, many supporters of the government publicly condemned Russia and accused it of not really wanting to complete the plant in order to gain concessions from Washington. The critics also raised Moscow's reluctance to sell Iran S-300 anti-aircraft missiles despite an earlier agreement--again, only to please the West.

Finally, there is the problematic issue of Iran's portion of the Caspian Sea. Russia and the three other coastal states have thus far refused to recognize Iran's equal share in the Caspian.

The Russians are of course aware of the Iranian complaints. They have their own side of the story. Moscow maintains that Iran always comes to it not by choice but by necessity. In other words, had any of the western powers been prepared to finish the Bushehr plant, Iran would not have chosen Russia. Iran is forced to deal with Moscow because of western sanctions. If the sanctions are lifted and Iran's relations with the West improve, Russia will no longer occupy a position of importance in the Islamic regime's diplomacy.

In short, both countries believe that their present alliance is more one of circumstance than of inherent geopolitical necessity.- Published 3/12/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Sadegh Zibakalam is professor of political science at Tehran University.

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