Columns - From The Sidelines

Iran sanctions - put up or shut up?
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

When the United States passed a law to impose sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran's central bank, thereby effectively obstructing other countries buying Iranian oil, it claimed its intention was to hurt Iran and not others. But clearly things have not worked out this way, if President Mahinda Rajapaksa's remarks to foreign correspondents at Temple Trees on Tuesday are anything to go by. The president protested that the US and EU combined sanctions were not punishing Iran, but "punishing us, small countries."

File Photo: President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and entourage during a visit to the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation oil refinery at Sapugaskanda.

Though a small buyer in terms of Iran's overall oil exports, Sri Lanka depends on Iran for over 90 percent of its crude oil imports, and hence is badly hit by the embargo. The situation is worsened by the fact that the refinery at Sapugaskanda, which is over 45 years old, can only handle crude oil from Iran and certain varieties from Saudi Arabia. Petroleum Industries Ministry officials who met with US Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary Luke Bronin in Colombo on Thursday have, according to Minister Susil Premajayantha, explained the circumstances and sought a waiver of the sanctions. In the meantime, the ministry is exploring ways to make good the shortfall with imports from Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Sri Lanka is probably not alone in this 'third party' predicament, through no fault of its own. Sri Lanka enjoys friendly relations with Iran which has helped out with a seven month credit facility for oil imports, besides being a major buyer of tea and assisting in various development projects. On the other hand the US is the country's biggest trading partner. "We don't want to antagonise any country," Premajayantha said, asserting that Sri Lanka had longstanding good relations with all concerned. India and China, the emerging Asian giants, have chosen to ignore the US sanctions while exploring other routes by which to channel oil payments to Iran.

The US's objectives in imposing these measures seem to be lacking in a clear rationale. Along with the European Union's direct ban on oil imports from Iran, they are ostensibly aimed at punishing the Islamic republic for its nuclear program. This is on the basis that Iran is believed to be developing a nuclear weapon. However US officials themselves in their more candid moments are on record admitting that Iran does not have a nuclear bomb. US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, on CBS's 'Face the Nation' 8th January, when asked if Iran was developing a nuclear weapon said "No, but we know they are trying to develop a nuclear capability."

By all accounts there is no solid evidence at all to justify the claims upon which the west has imposed the sanctions, which have only succeeded in causing turbulence in the markets and serious inconvenience in developing economies like that of Sri Lanka.

"There is in fact no reliable evidence that Iran is engaged in a nuclear weapons programme," wrote Seumas Milne in the UK Guardian. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report once again failed to produce a smoking gun, despite the best efforts of its new director general Yukiya Amano - described in a Wikileaks cable as "solidly in the US court on every strategic decision."

The alarming aspect of the sanctions is that they are seen in many quarters as a precursor to military action. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Centre was quoted in "The Daily Beast " saying "You don't propose and go about doing an oil embargo unless you are serious about taking the next step, and the next step for the administration is clearly some form of military action …"
Analysts warn that a US or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities could ignite a major conflagration in the Middle East, since Iran would most certainly retaliate with the support of its allies in the region. Panetta himself had earlier said that an Israeli attack could "consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret." That statement was met with outrage by the Israelis who lodged a formal diplomatic protest with Washington.

One interpretation of the ratcheting-up of anti-Iran rhetoric is that it is related to the upcoming US presidential election in November. Most Republican candidates have been vying with each other to adopt a militant stance in relation to Iran. But candidate Ron Paul, taking an independent line, has told voters that the sanctions amount to "acts of war" that could lead to an actual war and that Iran was justified in retaliating by threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz.

The strategically located strait is the channel through which some 40 percent of the world's oil transits. Ron Paul's attitude to foreign policy, that "the US should mind its own business" and "stop trying to force other nations to meet its demands" would probably find favour in much of the developing world, even if it does not win him too many American votes.

The western tendency to demonise Iran is at odds with the reality. Iran, while it has not invaded anyone in recent history, has itself been the site of several 'mysterious' attacks on its nuclear scientists in the past few years. The most recent victim was Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan who was killed by a bomb placed on his car by a motorcyclist in Tehran on 11th Jan. Iran has accused the CIA of involvement; the US has denied the charge.

One might ask, why this intense focus on Iran's nuclear program? Iran asserts its right to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and is a signatory to the Nuclear Non proliferation Treaty. The only nuclear power in the Middle East is in fact Israel, believed to have some 300 nuclear warheads. If anyone is under threat, by any realistic assessment, it would seem to be Iran, and not the west or its Middle Eastern allies. Indeed if Iran does develop a nuclear weapon, it could be argued that it was western war-mongering that pushed them to do so in self defence. A nuclear armed Iran would certainly tilt the balance in Middle East standoff. But the real reason for the hostility towards Iran would seem to be simply the fact that the Islamic state adopts an independent policy, resists western influence and keeps company that the US does not like.

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