Issue of the week

Iran sitting pretty in the face of sanctions

By Ameen Izzadeen

The August 31 UN deadline came and there were no signs from Iran that it had suspended its uranium enrichment programme as requested by the world body at the behest of the United States and its three European allies - Britain, France and Germany.

On the contrary, there was defiance from Iran which refused to wilt under US-European pressure or the threat of punitive measures.

The message Iran is sending to the world is that it has not violated any international treaty with regard to its nuclear programme and therefore any punitive measure against Iran is unwarranted. On Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed that his country would never give up its nuclear programme and accused the West of misinterpreting Iran's nuclear activities.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, flashes the victory sign, during a public gathering at the city of Orumiyeh 540 miles northwest of Tehran, on Thursday, the day on which the U.N. deadline for his country to stop enriching uranium expired. He said Teheran would not be bullied into giving up its right to nuclear technology. (AP Photo/ISNA)

Iran appears to be confident that the punitive measures which the US and the European three are threatening to impose will not see the light of day due to geopolitical factors, especially those of Russia and China.

Some US analysts, apparently expecting Russia to back sanctions against Iran, make an effort to paint a nuclear Iran as a threat to Russia. They say Moscow does not want another nuclear power close to its border. But Moscow also knows that a nuclear Iran will be largely a counterforce to the US, Israel and the West. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, the new geo-strategic reality will place an additional strategic burden on the West, especially the US. The West will be compelled to concentrate its strategic thinking, military resources and intelligence gathering on Teheran. This means, the West's grip on other areas, including Russia, will slacken.

In other words, Russia stands to benefit if Iran emerges as a counter-balance to the West's military power, especially in West Asia. Although the Cold War is over, it is no secret that the West and the United States have not fully incorporated Russia into their alliance. Neither has Russia sought a membership in any Western club. It feels such membership belittles its past superpower laurels. The mutual suspicion that existed during the Cold War is still evident in Russia's relations with the West and the US.

Russia is also not happy over the growing US influence in its backyard. Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and several other Central Asian countries — all formerly members of the Soviet Union — are governed by pro-US regimes, much to the chagrin of Russia. Moreover, the Commonwealth of Independent States, which the states of the former Soviet Union formed upon the dissolution of the communist empire, is only a namesake organization today although it was conceived as a bloc to coordinate foreign and economic policies of member-states. The three Baltic States of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have joined the North Atlantic Treaty Oragnisation (NATO) and the European Union while other states do not hide their intention to join the pro-Western military and economic alliances.

Against this backdrop, Russia has reasons to believe that a militarily powerful Iran will act as a bulwark against Western domination in the Russian underbelly. Moscow, one of Iran's biggest trading partners, is the largest supplier of material to Iran's nuclear industry. Any economic sanctions on Iran will certainly hit Russia economically. Therefore Russia may feel that it stands to gain economically and strategically if Iran emerges as a powerful regional player and saps the military energy of the West.

What about China? China is not lost on the fact that the United States is building up India — with enhanced cooperation in military, economic and nuclear fields — as a counterforce to check Beijing’s growing economic and military power. Although both China and India are taking diplomatic measures to improve their relations and neither perceives the other as an enemy any more, there is friction in several trade and diplomatic areas. For instance, both China and India are competing with each other in the energy market with both Indian and Chinese oil firms spreading their tentacles far and wide to win oil-related contracts. In diplomacy, China's close ties with Pakistan still evoke India's suspicion.

There is an opportunity for China to use Iran in a similar fashion the US uses India.

Besides, Iran is China's biggest oil supplier and China is unlikely to go with the US and its European partners to slam sanctions on Iran -- a move that is likely to shoot oil prices up.

Teheran is not unaware of these geopolitical factors and is sitting pretty.

Geopolitical factors apart, Iran believes that it has not violated the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or any statutes of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In fact, the NPT recommends that signatories to the treaty could obtain assistance to build nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes from other countries.

All states that are party to the NPT have an inalienable right to produce nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Iran believes that as this right is inalienable, it cannot be curtailed under any pretext. It says that any attempt to do so would be an attempt to undermine the treaty.

Legally, there is no obligation on the part of Iran to negotiate or subject its peaceful nuclear programme to new agreements outside the IAEA or the NPT. Therefore any suspension of the nuclear programme could come as a voluntary step and not under US or European pressure. Even the IAEA board of governors in a previous report had underscored that suspension "is a voluntary, non-legal-binding confidence-building measure".

However, in a report on Thursday, the IAEA claimed that Teheran had not halted uranium enrichment and said three years of IAEA probing had been unable to confirm ''the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme'' because of lack of cooperation from Teheran.

The IAEA report, however, does not say that the nuclear watchdog has been unable to confirm the military nature of the Iran's nuclear programme.
The language of the IAEA report is no different from that went to shape up its report on Iraq — a report that allowed room for the the United States to interpret it the way it wanted and justify its war on Iraq in 2003.

The whole issue over Iran's nuclear programme is based on fear and suspicion entertained by the West which refuses to believe Iran's claim. It is a question of lack of trust. The West insists that Iran's nuclear programme is weapon-oriented and to substantiate its claim it does not rely on concrete evidence but reasons out by saying an oil-and-gas-rich country does not need nuclear energy. Western nations fear that if Iran is allowed to grow stronger, they will not be able to implement their designs and strategies to dominate West Asia and exploit their resources.

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