Russia, the United States and U.N. Sanctions On Iran
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.
THE UNITED NATIONS SECURITY COUNCIL ON WEDNESDAY voted to impose a fourth round of sanctions on Iran for its ongoing nuclear efforts. The sanctions ban the sale of a host of "heavy" weapons, restricts transactions that can be linked to nuclear activities and blacklists additional Iranian firms. The two things to note about these sanctions are, first, that after years of haggling, Washington has finally achieved sanctions, and second, that to achieve these sanctions, the United States had to remove almost any teeth they might have. In terms of empty international developments, the new sanctions are much like the May 17 proposal brokered by Turkey and Brazil (not incidentally, the only two countries that voted against the sanctions) for a "fuel swap." That "agreement" did nothing to address the international community's concerns about Iran's enrichment activities and failed to extract any concessions from Tehran. Yet both are nevertheless significant developments. The Turkish agreement was used by not only Tehran, but also Ankara, Brasilia and others that opposed sanctions to argue that Iran was indeed willing to compromise and negotiate. It has long been clear that the United States was not willing to risk a potentially ineffective military strike on the Iranian nuclear program when the Iranian reprisal would include destabilization of an already frightfully fragile Iraq and an attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz –- a serious threat to the still fragile economic recovery. So in the long saga of the Iranian nuclear program, that proposal only further bolstered Iranian confidence in the strength of its negotiating position. Yet two countries that did not cheer on the May 17 agreement were Russia (who was at least nominally supportive of the swap agreement) and China, the two holdouts that had been frustrating American attempts at sanctions for years. Indeed, the very next day, on May 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the administration had secured Russian and Chinese cooperation on a draft resolution to impose fresh sanctions on the Islamic republic; the draft that was signed Wednesday. What changed and why does it matter? Though some concessions may have been made, it comes down to the fact that it was easy for China to sidestep the sanctions issue as long as the Russians were not on board. But China (who wants to be seen as a "responsible international power") also never had much leverage in Tehran –- certainly not as much as Moscow. So with toothless sanctions that do not threaten oil –- and therefore do not affect Chinese business –- it did Chinese interests little good to remain as the lone veto-wielding opponent. Ultimately, from the Russian perspective, the Americans have burned considerable energy and political capital to achieve blatantly toothless sanctions. In Moscow, the agreement is part of a more complicated scheme. Despite its past few years of consolidation in its former Soviet sphere -– pulling countries like Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan into the fold and occupying parts of Georgia –- Russia is about to shift its foreign policy stance to become a touch more pragmatic. This is not Russia shifting to a pro-Western foreign policy. Instead, Russia is about to jumpstart a modernization program and needs the West to help implement it. So when Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov came to Washington in May, he proposed a trade to Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser Jim Jones. Russia was willing to come on board on light sanctions on Iran if the United States would consider coming back into the Russian economy. But Ivanov made sure to set some parameters on the sanctions. The sanctions exclude Russia's role in supplying the long-touted potential sale of the S-300 strategic air defense system and the long-promised finishing of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. In essence, Russia still holds large levers over Iran and in its relationship with the United States, neither of which Moscow is willing to give up just yet. And ultimately, from the Russian perspective, the Americans have burned considerable energy and political capital to achieve blatantly toothless sanctions. In Russia, letting Washington push through with the sanctions only makes the United States look foolish. But the "toothlessness" of any potential U.N. Security Council sanctions has long been apparent, even to Washington. What Washington achieved was getting Russia on board with anything at all — and this is not going unnoticed in Tehran. When the Russian and Chinese votes at the United Nations became clear — even before they were voted upon — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he would not attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan set for the end of this week, a snub directed at both Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao. Like the May 17 agreement, Wednesday's sanctions do not represent fundamental shifts in and of themselves. But they are important pivots in the ongoing saga of the Iranian nuclear issue, and they are not without their value in terms of relative negotiating positions. Tehran retains its trump cards in its regional proxies (although with Turkey's increasing power in the region there is the potential that Iran's ability to use its influence over these groups may weaken) and along the Strait of Hormuz, but it has long counted on Russian protection. Russia has not agreed to anything that actually hurts Iran (and Iran has proven quite adept at getting around sanctions thus far), but Tehran is now forced to consider the symbolism of what Russia might agree to in exchange for things that really matter to Moscow.