Feb 26, 2010 | 11:56 GMT

6 mins read

The Iranian Saga Continues

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
THURSDAY WITNESSED A SERIES OF NEW WRINKLES in the ongoing Iran saga. For those readers who have been in a coma for the last three months, here is the abbreviated background. Israel is a state so small that it could not likely survive a nuclear strike. It feels that Iran's civilian nuclear power program is simply a mask for a more nefarious weapons project and wants it stopped by severe sanctions if possible, and military force if necessary. As Israel lacks the muscle to achieve this itself, it is attempting to pressure the Americans to handle the issue. Israel is reasonably confident it can so pressure Washington, simply because while Israel lacks the punch to certifiably end the Iranian program, it most certainly has the ability to start a war. Since Iran's best means of retaliating would be to interrupt oil shipments in the Persian Gulf, the United States would have no choice but to get involved, regardless of its independent desires. Ergo it was with significant interest that we watched the State Department's daily press briefing, where State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters the following: "It is not our intent to have crippling sanctions that have a significant impact on the Iranian people. Our actual intent is actually to find ways to pressure the government while protecting the people." The same day, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington reiterating Israeli policy in support of the very same so-called "crippling sanctions." While it may seem little more than semantics, the terminology here matters, especially to Israel — reports from Israel indicate that the Israeli Prime Minister's office intends to follow up on the issue to ensure that the rejection of crippling sanctions does not constitute a policy shift. Our first thought was not far from the Israelis' — that the Americans were taking a step back from sanctions. But when we re-evaluated, we noted that in recent weeks many of the other players that would be required to make sanctions work — Germany, Russia and China most notably — have been acting a bit peculiar. We are hardly to the point where we think that the various players are getting down to the brass tacks of sanctions details, but there is little doubt that the Americans have been making incremental progress in that direction. Still, they are far from achieving sanctions that would meet Israel's definition of "crippling." If there is a single state that must be on board for sanctions to work, it is Russia. Which made us even more interested to see sanctions-busting rhetoric out of none other than Brazil. Brazil and Iran are literally about as far as two states can be from each other on this planet, but Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is on a bit of an Iran kick. Iran is hoping that when Lula travels to Iran for a formal state visit in May he will go beyond the rhetoric and invite Iranian banks to operate in Brazil, an action that allows them to partially circumvent whatever financial sanctions are already in place. STRATFOR is admittedly puzzled by this preoccupation with Iran, as it does not seem to grant Brazil (or Lula) any benefit. Lula is not a rabid leftist, but instead a relatively moderate statesman. Brazil and Iran hold minimal bilateral trade or investment interests. Brazilian energy powerhouse Petroleos Brasilieros (Petrobras) recently left projects in Iran, ostensibly because of lack of opportunity (though the threat of U.S. retaliation hovered in the air). And any possible political gains are questionable at least. While we acknowledge that twisting the American tail can earn major kudos in international fora, getting in the way of what is becoming a core American foreign policy initiative can be a dangerous place to be. Additionally, Lula is on his way out of the presidency and does not need to curry favor with an already enthusiastic Brazilian public. In fact, some groups in Brazil have openly challenged his Iranian policy. U.S. State Department senior personnel, including Under Secretary of State William J. Burns as well as his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have already blocked out time to convince Lula to walk away from this fight. Yet even if the United States can convince states such as Brazil — not to mention China — that tough words on Iran must give way to tough action, it is not as if Iran lacks its own means of reshaping the equation. Most notably, Iranian influence would be felt in Iraq. On Thursday, Washington leaked that the man in charge of implementing military strategy in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, had asked for additional American forces to remain in Iraq beyond U.S. President Barack Obama's August withdrawal deadline. Specifically, Odierno fears — with a substantial number of reasons — that the northern city of Kirkuk could explode into violence if U.S. forces leave too soon. The Kurds have been the sectarian group in Iraq that has proven most helpful to the Americans, and they hope that in time Kirkuk will serve not only as Iraq's northern oil capital, but as the Kurdish regional capital as well. If the U.S. commander in charge of the withdrawal has already petitioned the president for more troops in the part of the country that is most secure, one can only imagine what the situation is like in the south where Iran's influence is palpable. Finally, let us end with a point on those as yet unrealized sanctions. If there is a single state that must be on board for them to work, it is Russia. Russia has sufficient financial access to the Western world to sink any banking sanctions, plus sufficient spare refining capacity and access to transport infrastructure to make any gasoline sanctions a politically expensive exercise in futility. But Russia does not work for free, and Thursday Moscow clarified just how important it thinks it has become. Thursday Russia explicitly extended its nuclear umbrella to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, the five other states in its Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). While CSTO is a pale, pale shadow of its NATO counterpart, the Kremlin's announcement was a not-so-subtle reminder that Russia not only has nuclear weapons — as opposed to any, at present, purely theoretical Iranian nuclear weapons — but that (at least on paper) it is willing to use such weapons to protect what the Kremlin sees as its turf. Ultimately the Russians are willing to toss the Iranians aside, but only if the price is right. Thursday they gave a pretty clear idea of just what that price is: full American acquiescence to their desired sphere of influence. And with Russian influence continuing to rise in the former Soviet Union — earlier this week Ukrainian authorities certified the election of a pro-Moscow president, fully overturning the Orange Revolution of five years ago — it is a price that is likely to only increase in the months ahead.

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