February 03, 2006

Iran and the IAEA

It's coming down to the wire. This Jakarta Post editorial highlights the tangle introduced by Russia and China.

... Beijing wants to prevent the destabilizing spread of nuclear weapons and protect its generally good relations with the U.S. and the EU. But it also wants to nurture close ties with Iran, an energy supplier that is viewed as an increasingly important future source of oil and natural gas to keep the Chinese economy revving strongly.

Moreover, China -- which champions multipolarity to offset dominant U.S. power -- sees Iran as an attractive partner, given its independence from the American sphere of influence and its proximity to the energy-rich Persian Gulf and central Asia, as well as its own wealth of oil and gas.

Iran is the world's fourth largest exporter of crude oil and has the second biggest gas reserves after Russia. China is the second largest importer of oil after the U.S. ...

Like China, Russia is keen to develop its already extensive energy, military and commercial ties with Iran. Moscow is building Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The 1,000 megawatt facility, costing about US$1 billion, is due to start generating electricity late this year and Moscow expects to get follow-on contracts for additional nuclear plants.

Despite U.S. objections, Russia also agreed recently to sell advanced mobile surface-to-air missiles and other defense equipment to Iran worth more than $1 billion. ...

This is the backdrop for the international game of chicken implicit in figuring out whether the US will end up having more popular pull than a country with enormous gas and oil reserves that also hasn't started a war since, like, ever. Iran has energy, money to burn and one of the few healthy economies anywhere. Their leaders talk a lot of trash about the West in general, the US and Israel in particular, and they fund violent agitators. But. They've been quite careful to keep their noses what passes for clean as Mideast governments go. They aren't involved with Al Qaida and they're more likely to be involved in trade deals with their neighbors than border skirmishes. The Iranian public has no desire to start a war, even if they do feel entitled to the same level of armament achieved by Pakistan and India.

These things count and everyone knows the score. If Iran is referred to the Security Council and follows through in pulling out of the IAEA inspection regime, it seems unlikely that any sanctions with teeth will either get passed or work in any fundamental way. Arguments about Iran's supposed lack of need for nuclear power because of large proven energy reserves, as I've noted before, miss the point. The cash and goodwill to be secured by trading hydrocarbon fuels to other countries is far more valuable to Iran than the immediate use of an energy supply. Government spokesentities the world around may forget this in public, but it's not seriously at issue for a country that's been under sanctions so long that many times their trade options consist of either making things at home or facing black market markups.

Still, as this Asia Times columnist points out, Iran's diplomatic currency is trading lower since the election of Ahmedinejad, a man who reminds me more of George W. Bush every time he opens his mouth and attempts to swallow his own foot. Hardline statements about Israel, among other charming, revolution-era patter, have led to "avoidable damage to Iran's foreign policy aims and interests, caused by a lack of experience, dogmatism, overambitiousness, self-fed sloganism and miscalculation." See? Just like the Bush administration, but without the benefit of half a century of superpowerdom to back him up.

The situation is certainly serious and Iran finds itself in a harder position than when they had Khatami to kick around for his centrism and comparable reasonableness. Though I find it unlikely that a military solution would be easy as claimed by some. Yes, we can drop bombs and so, for that matter, could Israel or the UK forces stationed in the Gulf. But what then?

Does the world want to find out what happens when Iran gets left with nothing to lose? No potential benefits for good behavior? I don't. There are few countries in the world more nationalistic. In spite of relative wealth and a relatively recent revolution under their belt, the public there puts up with the only government in a long time that's kept them independent of foreign rule, much as it chafes.

I'm not sure what would be the right thing to do, though I'm disinclined to think that America has a more dangerous enemy anywhere than its own capacity for bad judgement and hotheadedness. But I feel that if there is good advice to be had, it would start with the phrase, "Don't make any sudden moves, ..."

Posted by natasha at February 3, 2006 02:54 AM | International | Technorati links |