Getting Iran Back to the Table
On May 18 this year, the United States submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council for a new round of sanctions against Iran. Although the administration of Barack Obama had previously secured the support of China and Russia—both of whom have close ties with Iran—the resolution’s fate remained unclear. The day before, Iran signed a deal with Brazil and Turkey under which it agreed to send 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium (3.5% enriched) to Turkey, providing the United States, Russia, and France supplied Iran with 120 kilograms of nuclear fuel (20% enriched) for peaceful purposes. Some observers predicted that the fuel-swap deal—similar to an arrangement previously proposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency—would be sufficient to delay passage of the sanctions resolution. 1
Mixed Signals from Moscow?
The pivotal players here are Russia and China. Both have agreed to support the US-sponsored resolution. Yet, unlike the Obama administration, both seem to regard the fuel-swap deal reached through the mediation efforts by Brazil and Turkey as a positive development.
For example, China’s UN Ambassador Li Baodong endorsed the sanctions resolution, saying, “We think the introduction of the draft resolution represents an opportunity. It is our hope that all the parties concerned can grasp the opportunity to work for a proper solution though diplomacy.” But he also called the fuel swap deal “a positive step in the right direction." 2 Similarly, on the Russian side, UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin stated that Moscow supported the sanctions because they were "focused adequately on nonproliferation matters" and would not cause "humanitarian damage" or create problems for normal economic activity. At the same time, in a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Washington to reexamine the agreement with Brazil and Turkey as a way to “help establish a favorable atmosphere for the resumption of political and diplomatic efforts to regulate Iranian nuclear problems.” 3
In my previous analysis, in which I wrote, “Only days after Obama submitted the previously tabled 123 Agreement to Congress, Moscow officially agreed to tough new economic sanctions on Iran advocated by the Obama administration. The ‘resetting’ of US-Russia relations had reached the final stages.” To some, Russia’s mixed message might appear to contradict this conclusion. But as I see it, there is no fundamental contradiction.
The Intent behind the Sanctions
In the May 20 edition of the Russian newspaper Vremya Novostei , Vladimir Orlov of the PIR Center (Russian Center for Policy Studies) was quoted as follows:
“Preparations for a new round of sanctions with Russian participation are complete. Their substance is such as to bite but not strangle Iran, to borrow President Medvedev’s language. [For this reason] there are adequate grounds for concluding that the agreement Turkey and Brazil concluded with Iran had the prior approval of Russia and the United States.” 4
The logic of Orlov’s statement may not be immediately clear, but I interpret it to signify the following.
- Russia and China agreed to cooperate with the Obama administration in submitting a resolution for new sanctions against Iran to the UN Security Council.
- In substance, however, the sanctions are a far cry from the tough measures sought by Israel and certain members of Congress, such as a gasoline embargo; moreover, the Obama administration is fully aware that they will not lead to a fundamental solution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
- In submitting the latest resolution to the UN Security Council with the support of Russia and China, the Obama administration—which was initially reluctant to impose additional sanctions—hopes to give the appearance of “getting tough” with Iran while in fact using the uranium fuel swap mediated by Brazil and Turkey as a means of gradually bringing Iran back to the P-5+1 (permanent Security Council members plus Germany) table, where the parties can negotiate more fundamental measures, including the suspension of Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
- Russia fully understands the Obama administration’s underlying intent and is cooperating to that end.
If the above interpretation is correct, then we can conclude that the “resetting of US-Russia relations” is still on track and will remain so even in the event that Moscow and Beijing force a delay in the adoption of additional Iran sanctions by the UN Security Council. (Translated from a report in Japanese published on May 24, 2010)
1 “Deal Sets Back US Goal of Sanctions,” Financial Times , May 17, 2010.
2 “Iran Tests Russia-China Diplomacy,” Financial Times , May 19, 2010.
3 “Kusayushaya rezolutziya,” Vremya Novostei , May 20, 2010.