Monday, January 16, 2006

Nuclear Iran. Part Two - Sanctions or What?

The five veto-holding members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, have been meeting today in an attempt to agree on what exactly should be done about the Iranian nuclear program. Together, these nations are the main players (other than Iran) - the EU3 of Germany, France and Britain; the US which has the biggest axe to grind when it comes to Iran; Russia which is trying to keep good relations with the first four but earns a lot of foreign currency from Iran's nuclear project and China, which is heavily reliant on Iran for oil and gas while also making plenty of arms sales to Iran. The next meeting of the International Atomic Energy Authority's governing board is scheduled for March and the idea behind the current meetings is that the six nations will be in broad agreement by then. However, Russia and China are still not "on side" with American-led moves to make Iran a pariah state. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said today:
China believes that under the current situation, all relevant sides should remain restrained and stick to solving the Iranian nuclear issue through negotiations.
While Russia obviously feels it can garner for itself a priveliged position as provider of enriched uranium fuel to the world and pull Iran's cat out of the bag.
The Russian proposal would ensure oversight so that uranium would be enriched only as much as is needed for use in nuclear power plants and not to the higher level required for weapons.
"As far as Russia's proposal is concerned, we consider it constructive and are carefully studying it. This is a good initiative to resolve the situation. We believe that Iran and Russia should find a way out of this jointly," Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Gholamreza Ansari, said in comments translated into Russian and shown on state Channel One television.
Iran's concerns are easy to see, especially after Russia recently shut off gas supplies to the Ukraine - it must be reassured that Russia's priveliged position under such a deal does not mean it becomes an effective satellite state or that it's supplies of fuel can be shut off for no particular reason. However, if the two nations can reach a deal on enrichment, it effectively defuses the entire situation for now. Only the uber-hawks would then be left crying about possible secret military development programs for which there is no concrete, objective evidence. Mind you, that has never stopped the Bush administration when it wanted to provoke a fight before and is unlikely to do so again. However, it would strip away most international backing for the Bush administrations obvious desire to play hardball.

America, however, is pushing to have a special meeting of the IAEA earlier than scheduled and the EU3 (France, Germany and Britain) have now fallen in line with this, announcing they want an emergency meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog's 35-nation board of governors in Vienna on February 2-3. . Ostensibly this is because the situation is so serious and so pressing but anyone who reads between the lines of the media reports or looks beyond the narrative handed out by the US and so helpfully and uncritically parroted by the media at home and in Europe knows that this is simply false. The best intelligence estimates say that even if Iraq is actively seeking a nuclear weapon - something which is highly questionable as is shown in part one - then they are between three and ten years away from actually doing so. More likely the latter figure as IAEA inspections consistently show Iran has less of a nuclear infrastructure than the more doom-mongering assessments require. Unless the Bush administration and it's allies are being as uncritical of intelligence from questionable sources as even it's supporters admit it was over Iraq - in other words, unless they are swallowing their own bullshit whole again - then they too realise that what they are desseminating to the public is yet again misleading if not actual lies.

No, the more likely reason for American-backed calls for haste is to keep up the pressure - to keep the ball rolling at an ever increasing speed. That not only pressures Iranians, who must surely feel the winds of war blowing on their necks already, but also the other five nations currently in negotiation over a joint path as well as the IAEA. It also creates a sense of ever-faster approaching doom in the minds of the public and that sense of fear has always been very useful to the Bush administrations efforts on all fronts. Lastly, if successful, it cuts the time for the IAEA to inspect, question and verify. It cuts the time available for the actual truth to be ascertained - making it all the more likely that the IAEA will bend under pressure, err on the side of extreme possibility, and refer Iran to the Security Council as the US wishes. President Putin of Russia knows this, and has said that "it's necessary to work carefully and avoid any sharp, erroneous moves." Today's action in calling an emergency session shows he is being ignored.

If the six major players can come to an agreement, especially on whether Iran should be referred to the UN Security Council by the IAEA, then there will be huge pressure on El Baradei's crew to do exactly that. There's no guarantee, however, that the IAEA will refer Iran just because any number of those six nations say they should. El Baradei and his governors have proven themselves independant thinkers in the past and were they to do so again and refuse to refer Iran it would considerably weaken the hand of the US and it's allies. That's not to say it would stop America doing what it wants to - merely that it would do so without the primature of the IAEA's decision.

If (and on balance I think they will, under pressure and constraints of time) the IAEA refers Iran to the Security Council then there are a range of possible outcomes. These begin with a simple Chapter Seven slap on the wrist and an ultimatum to fully co-operate with anything the IAEA asks for, or else. (As an aside, can you imagine the U.S. agreeing to such a thing for it's own nuclear programs? Or Britain? Russia? France?) Next in severity would be blocking Iran's application to join the World Trade Organisation; curtailling Iranian citizens' and diplomats' freedom of movement about the world; attempting to ban Iran from the World Cup (Soccer, for Americans...the rest don't need to ask). Next comes a series of economic sanctions:
The United States already embargoes major trade with Iran. It is especially keen to stop US oil companies from helping Iran develop its reserves. Oil and gas are by far Iran's largest exports. According to the WTO, they and mining products account for 86% of Iranian exports. But the US could not expect other countries to take such drastic action and it might be difficult to persuade some of them to take much action at all.

For example China, a veto-holding permanent member of the Security Council and in search of oil worldwide, would hardly vote for an oil embargo - given that in November 2004, it reached a major agreement with Iran to buy its oil and gas in a deal valued by the Chinese at $70bn. The West also has to tread carefully in the current oil crisis. At the moment Japan is the largest importer of Iranian oil and would not want the trade to be curtailed too much.
The consensus opinion also seems to be that sanctions will be ineffective at bringing Iran "into line". Iran's populace are already used to a high level of sanctions by the U.S. and Iran's leaders appear to have the backing of the populace as well as a great lever - a surfeit of oil and gas in a time of energy shortages. However, large-scale sanctions would give America and it's allies a face-saver. They could pretend they had done something concrete about "the grave threat" they have trumpeted. The danger would be that Iran could then retaliate by hiking the price of oil, although that wouldn't phase the oil companies one bit. As the invasion and occupation of Iraq has proven, higher prices mean greater profits.

If the IAEA doesn't refer Iran, or the Security Council doesn't do what America would like done, then the US has the option of going it alone or with a small ad-hoc coalition of allies. In such a circumstance, sanctions of any kind by a small group of nations just aren't going to cut it. If the Security Council doesn't give the U.S. what it wants then the only option left is the military option. It's that or back down - and I simply don't believe the Bush administration will do that. They've already spent too much political and diplomatic capital trying to convince everyone that Iran is one of the nations covered by the Bush Doctrine, one of the "axis of evil".

At that point, I believe America, either itself or by proxy, will exercise the military option. That's next.

Part One, The Back Story deals with the known truths and speculations about Iran's nuclear program. Part Three - Exploring the Military Option looks at the final resort.

Update Within minutes of my posting this came news that China and Russia have declined to join calls for Iran's referral to the U.N. Security Council. The EU3 and America seem determined to continue with the referral process, however this changes the equation somewhat in that actual referral by the IAEA has become less likely and the chance of a veto of any eventual Security Council action by Russia or China has become more so. That means that things have become more dangerous - the chances that the U.S. and and/or it's allies will take unilateral military action just increased.

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