Don't Bet On Trust
13 October 2009
Times of India
One week Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is wagging his finger at the world from the podium at the UN stating that Iran will never relinquish the right to
Pursue a nuclear programme. The next week, as if all the previous Iranian proclamations on the subject for many years had been mere posturing, the Iranian team in Geneva suddenly says Iran is willing to send the majority of its known enriched uranium stockpile to Russia for future reprocessing.
Which Iran is the world supposed to believe? The Iran that could for the first time be taking a step back from the precipice, or the Iran that has consistently been intransigent on the question of adherence to nuclear safeguards and lied to the International Atomic Energy Agency? Can anyone really believe that, after decades in pursuit of a nuclear weapon and now being within a hair's breath of achieving that objective, the Iranians are now willing to give it all up to break bread with Satan? In all likelihood, the offer to ship up to 75 per cent of Iran's known uranium stockpile to Russia is merely a ploy to buy Iran more time to complete the final stage of achieving nuclear weapons capability. Iran no doubt has a substantial amount of undeclared enriched uranium that it will continue to refine into weapons grade uranium.
There is also the question of whether Russia can be a trusted player in all this. Given its historical support of Iran, its role in constructing the Bushehr nuclear power plant and its pending sale of anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran, Russia's motives are somewhat questionable. In any event, it seems unlikely that Russia will ultimately sign on to strict new sanctions. If this were to be the case, it would mark a significant shift in Russia's historical position. Surely, Russia has for some time known of the existence of the second uranium processing facility, but it has continued its support of the Iranian government.
Both Russia's and China's economic interests are the primary driver of their foreign policy with Iran. Both are likely to continue their decades-long economic and political support of Iran. In general, international sanctions can only really work when all big military powers play along. It seems unlikely that the US, UN or any other power will want to directly engage Russian or Chinese ships attempting to deliver goods to Iran during a blockade. The Russians have historically tried to deligitimise international sanctions as these have been used against Russia in the past. And China has tended to agree to impose sanctions when they suit its agenda. In this case, sanctions will not do so.
Even if both Russia and China were to go along, Iran has for years been steadily reducing its dependence on foreign sources of refined oil products, while enhancing its refining capabilities. Seven of the country's nine refineries are in the process of being expanded, while seven new refineries are either planned or already under construction, effectively doubling Iran's refining capabilities. Iran currently refines 75 per cent of its required gasoline. This figure is expected to rise to 85 per cent by 2010, and Iran should be completely self-sufficient by 2012. The Iranians construct their refineries themselves, so are not reliant for their completion on international companies.
In addition, Iran has since 2006 been converting its cars to run on indigenous natural gas, further reducing its dependence on imported gasoline. So the idea that severely restricting exports of gasoline will serve as an inducement for Iran to stop its weapons programme is not convincing at all. Encouraging the adoption of more financial sanctions against Iran could have some success. But, as has been seen with the current round of financial sanctions, it is relatively easy to thwart them as there are simply too many financial institutions and means of transferring funds for sanctions to be completely successful.
Iran has clearly anticipated the adoption of additional sanctions by the West for years and has crafted policies and practices designed to minimise their impact. It appears to be quite willing to endure additional economic sanctions. Its actions to date are totally consistent with this belief. So what prospect of success exists for meaningful sanctions against Iran? Very little.
It would be nice to believe that Iran's opening salvo in Geneva will neatly and quickly resolve the lingering question of what to do about the Iranian nuclear question. But the smarter bet would be to assume that additional evidence of deception by the Iranians will be uncovered and this will prove to be nothing more than confirmation of all the West's worst fears about Iran. A more stringent sanctions regime will follow, which will ultimately prove to be unsuccessful. The question Barack Obama and Israel's Binyamin Netanyahu must surely be considering is when military action will be pursued against Iran, and by whom, since both leaders have said Iran will not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Source: Times of India
The writer is with a consultancy firm assessing country risks.