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The Iranian Stalemate

I happened to tour the Middle East back in the mid-1990ies, at a moment when the Intifada peaked. My colleague and I stood at the top of a hill overlooking a spectacular landscape, on a site decorated with a UN flag. Here, the abbreviation is decoded as 'United Nothing', said my companion with bitter irony. Given the situation we were witnessing, the remark sounded upsetting but realistic.

The EU sanctions slapped on Tehran atop those imposed by the UN Security Council will have multiple dire consequences, and not only for Iran. Regardless of the controversy surrounding the UN, as of today it remains the only credible and inclusive forum where countries with different political cultures and development levels have real chances to get heard. For many of them, the unilateralist policies adopted by the US and the EU signal the threat that the UN may indeed be downgraded to the status of 'United Nothing'.

President Obama moved into the White House at the time when the US image on the world scene had been tarnished to an extent unthinkable since the Vietnam War. True, he has managed to do a lot to bridge the gap which opened between Washington and the rest of the world where even traditional allies of the US had to distance themselves from American policies. The unilateral sanctions were indicative of the US departure from Obama's original foreign course which seemed to imply reliance on soft power and readiness to take the views of others into account. No doubt, the dovish EU argument that 'sanctions are better than war' disguised unlimited readiness to follow the US lead on the issue of Iran.

Fidel Castro's words that the crisis around Iran will imminently escalate into a nuclear war are a case of needless alarmism, but his call to the countries of Latin America to unite in the face of the alleged peril is sure to resonate with the cohort of Castro-Chavists and with nationally-oriented elites across the continent and beyond. In May, Brazil, Turkey, France and a number of other countries welcomed a completely workable plan – floated by Russia and stamped by the Vienna Group comprising Russia, France, the US, and the IAEA – for a swap deal under which Iran was to exchange its stockpile of low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel rods. To a palpable disappointment of the international community which long became tired of the deadlocked Iranian problem, Washington said a blunt No to the agreement.

It is well-known that Washington spent a long period of time arm-twisting Russia and Beijing before they dropped their opposition to sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council. Having triggered the Matryoshka effect – the immersion of milder UN sanctions into tighter unilateral – the US cannot expect that rebuilding consensus with the UN Security Council partners will be easy. It is also worth noting that the markedly aggressive Israeli lobbying against Iran echoes with the closing of the Muslim world's ranks around Tehran.

Technically, the sanctions used to be notoriously inefficient even in the healthier years of the world economy, and therefore appear completely ill-conceived amidst the present-day global economic meltdown. Back in the Cold War era, the ban on export of oil and gas industry equipment to the USSR simply motivated the country to cultivate its own technologies. The resulting domestic progress, combined with some assistance from peers who opted out of the embargo, rendered the impact of the sanctions nonexistent. The tentative plan to disallow the involvement of European companies with certain sectors of Iran's industry, including energy, has already started to backfire economically by keeping the lucrative Iranian energy market out of their reach. China National Petroleum Corporation, for example, seized the opportunity which opened as Western energy grands withdrew from Iran's South Pars and achieved a practical monopoly in developing the giant natural gas field.

The Russian energy minister's recent visit to Tehran demonstrated with utmost clarity that the economic cooperation with Iran will continue regardless of how the sanctions intrigue plays out. Soyuzneftegaz president Yu. Shafranik says that Russian energy companies are keenly interested in the Iranian oil and gas market.

Unfortunately, suspicion grows in Iran of being used by Russia as a bargaining chip in an entangled diplomatic game with the US. Given the peculiar mindsets prevalent in the Iranian political class, it appears that Moscow has to handle an uphill task if it intends to earnestly spell out its independent position to this audience. The absolute truth is that Russia opposes the practice of unilateral sanctions being added to those legitimately approved by the UN. Moscow also considers unacceptable the attempts to derail the economy of Iran with the aim of provoking public discontent and political turbulence. At the same time, there is hope in Russia that Tehran will ensure maximal transparency of its nuclear program vis-a-vis the IAEA, and, by all means, Moscow would not like to see Iran nuclear-armed. A Russian speaker stressed at a conference of young diplomats from the CIS, Europe, and China last summer that any strikes on Palestine would put the Christian shrines in jeopardy and that no risk to the Tomb of Jesus or to Bethlehem can be tolerated even hypothetically.

The border between political rhetoric and action tends to be frighteningly thin in the East. If, under pressure, Iran decides in favor of self-isolation, the political gains in the country will predictably go to Muslims radicals. Eventually, Tehran's dropping out of touch with the world – in the dialog over the contentious nuclear program or the international relations in general – can indeed mean war. Sadly, there is a bit more to the grim forecast voiced by Castro than mere fantasy.