The International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report alleging that Iran has been involved in the clandestine research and testing of a potential nuclear warhead has put Tehran back in the spotlight. With growing concerns over a possible Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Western powers are considering a new round of even more punitive sanctions, possibly targeting Iran’s Central Bank and even the country’s oil exports. To make matters worse for Iran’s leadership, the report comes against the backdrop of serious allegations that the country has been involved in an assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador to Washington.
Quite predictably, Russia and China have quickly come to Iran’s rescue by vehemently opposing any new round of sanctions, while unequivocally condemning any threat or use of military aggression against Tehran. Cognizant of the IAEA report’s potential geo-political fallout, China and Russia have, from the onset, tirelessly sought to block its release. Russia has chastised the IAEA for its “counter-productive” actions, while China has appealed for a more “objective” approach to the issue.
Looking at the broader geo-political landscape, recent months have undoubtedly witnessed a growing rift between Western powers on the one hand, and China and Russia on the other. Early this year, Russia reluctantly backed the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1973, which called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya. Initially, Russia and China’s acquiescence was touted as a clear sign of the United States’ effective use of its “smart power,” symbolizing a growing international consensus over universal humanitarian norms. However, the view quickly changed when Russia and China accused the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of overstepping the UNSC resolution’s mandate when the latter played a more decisive role in military operations against Gaddafi’s forces.
The gap has further widened in recent months, with Russia and China expressing their opposition to any sort of pressure for a UNSC resolution against the Syrian regime. There are two key reasons for this: (1) Syria is an important strategic ally, especially for Russia; and (2) there’s a growing fear in Beijing and Moscow over NATO’s increasingly muscular policies, as seen in the Libyan case. Ultimately, both powers don’t wish to see a replication of Libyan regime change, especially in light of the fact that both China and Russia are struggling with their own domestic challenges, namely the ethnic separatist movements in the Caucasus and western China.
However, Iran represents an even more important partner for China and Russia. Beijing is already enjoying a booming trade and investment relationship with Tehran, while Russia is a major supplier of high-tech military technology and nuclear hardware for Iran. Indeed, Russia is consideringbuilding even more power plants in Iran in the coming years. Crucially, both countries have also concluded a bilateral strategic cooperation agreement. Clearly, the economic and strategic stakes are tremendously higher in Iran’s case.
Complicating all this is the prospect of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel, which would inevitably draw in other Western powers and which could further undermine regional stability. Given China’s growing energy demands, the last thing it needs is a disruption in oil supplies from the Middle East. Iran is already one of China top suppliers of oil, while Beijing is a major investor in Iran’s energy sector and infrastructural projects. Any sanctions could undermine Chinese interests in Iran.
Even in Western capitals, there’s less appetite for a military option, given Iran’s capacity to retaliate in both conventional and asymmetric ways. A new “front” would only complicate the regional picture, given the growing strategic uncertainties in the wake of popular uprisings across the Middle East. Germany, Turkey, France, and Sweden have also joinedthe chorus of countries, opposing an Israeli strike against Iran, while even the United States has expressed reservations. According to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, any military attack could have “unintended consequences”, because, “(it) could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region.”
Yet further sanctions against Iran’s central bank would only push oil prices up by disrupting supplies, in turn risking choking off an already fragile global economy. This would also embolden Iran to more aggressively undermine U.S. interests in the region, especially in light of plans for withdrawal from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan. This explains why the Obama administration is still contemplating the exact make-up of a new round of sanctions.
The problem of finding a solution appealing to all sides was made clear at the recently concluded APEC Summit, which exposed growing riftsbetween the United States on one hand, and Russia and China on the other. Failing to get Russia and China’s support for a new round of sanctions, President Barack Obama was instead compelled to insist that the current sanctions are already have “enormous bite.”
Worryingly, the IAEA report, which heavily relies on Western intelligence agencies’ data and satellite imagery, might mark the beginning of a period of serious estrangement between the IAEA and Iran. Iranian officials have accused the agency of succumbing to “Western pressure” by releasing a report that, according to them, is not only full of “fabrications,” but also touches on sensitive military issues, such as Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, which go well beyond the agency’s institutional mandate. Further sanctions and threats of a military strike could push Iran into a corner, prompting Tehran to re-think its very membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Tehran could decide to sever all ties with the IAEA, meaning negotiations would completely break down.
In an attempt to avoid this doomsday scenario, Russia has been pushing for the so-called “step-by-step” approach, whereby in exchange for Iran’s cooperation at every stage of inspection and negotiation, there will be a corresponding rollback in sanctions. The IAEA report suggests that Iran hasn’t yet actively pursued the development of a nuclear warhead. There were no “smoking guns’” or any definitive evidence to suggest that Iran has actually diverted its civilian nuclear program, meaning that there’s still some room for negotiations.
In recent months, Iran has indicated its interest in rekindling talks, while endorsing the Russian proposal. Beijing and Moscow will, for their part, try to block any further sanctions for the foreseeable future. Given the overall climate, and with growing tensions in the region, the Russian proposal is perhaps the best option for moving forward. How the West will respond, though, remains to be seen.
Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on international security and development issues. His articles have been featured or cited in Foreign Policy in Focus, Asia Times, UPI, the Transnational Institute and the Tehran Times, among other publications. He can be reached at: [email protected].