Russia And The U.S., Together Against Those Whippersnappers

David Sanger and Mark Landler at NYT:

The Obama administration announced an agreement on Tuesday with other major powers, including Russia and China, to impose a fourth set of sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, setting the stage for an intense tug of war with Tehran as it tries to avoid passage of the penalties by the full United Nations Security Council.

The announcement came just a day after Iranian leaders announced their own tentative deal, with Turkey and Brazil, to turn over about half of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel for a year, part of a frantic effort to blunt the American-led campaign for harsher sanctions.

“This announcement is as convincing an answer to the efforts undertaken in Tehran over the last few days as any we could provide,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, describing the agreement as a “strong draft.”

Laura Rozen at Politico:

The UN Iran sanctions draft has been unusually closely held, first as it was negotiated between the U.S., UK, and France, and in recent weeks with Russia and China.

A key section of the draft to be circulated to the full Council Tuesday will resemble a resolution passed against North Korea last summer after it conducted a nuclear test, the New York Times reports.

Consultations on the draft resolution were underway Monday, including in a meeting between visiting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, who has served as the U.S. point man to international negotations on Iran’s nuclear program.

Clinton dropped by the Burns-Ivanov meeting yesterday, and spoke with her Russian counterpart Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this morning, she told the Senate panel today.

While Beijing welcomed the fuel swap agreement negotiated by the Turks and Brazilians, it did not tip its hand on a UN Security Council resolution. “China has always believed that dialogue and negotiations are the best channel for resolving the Iran nuclear issue,” a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told a press conference in Beijing.

“The overall assessment that we already have is that we have much less difficulties with the Russians than with the Chinese” on a new UN Security Council resolution on Iran, a European diplomat said.

Turkey and Brazil are currently two of the ten non-permanent members of the UN Security Council. Several other Security Council non-permament members are expected to vote for the resoution, including Austria, Bosnia, Gabon, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, and Uganda. One European diplomat said Turkey and Brazil would vote for the resolution if China supported it.

A resolution needs 9 votes to pass, but three past UN Security Council resolutions on Iran have passed by overwhelming margins, with no members voting against.

Max Fisher at The Atlantic:

In the past year, Russian leadership, particularly President Dmitri Medvedev, has made a concerted effort to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties to Europe and the U.S., slowly reversing the country’s nearly century-long antagonism with the West. Russia has pursued rapprochement with Poland, economic ties with France, a key military partnership with the Ukraine, and the historic nuclear non-proliferation treaty with the U.S. Last week, the Russian edition of Newsweek reprinted a secret government document stating a new policy of abandoning Putin-era isolationism for greater engagement and cooperation with the West. Russia had opposed anti-Iran sanctions because the Russian government did not wish to establish precedents of a strong UN and of punishing states that pursued globally unpopular security policies. But, in its new role of international cooperation, Russia has less to fear from those precedents and more reasons to support them.

Russia also stands to make both economic and security gains from Iran sanctions. Because President Obama has rolled back President Bush’s pledge for Eastern European missile shields, Russia is less protected from the potential threat of Iranian weaponry. Ironically, the missile shields were designed to protect Europe from Russia as well as from Iran, but they indirectly benefited Russia by providing a layer of defense against possible Middle East-based missiles. With Russia more vulnerable to such attacks, it has a security interest in not just curbing Iranian nuclear weapons, but in preventing the Middle Eastern arms race that would likely result from a nuclear Iran. Economically, Russia and Iran are increasingly tense competitors in the natural gas market, which is central to both their economies. They are the world’s two greatest producers of natural gas. Iran’s 2001 deal to sell Turkey 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas was likely just the beginning. Iran has laid its pipeline into Central Asia. By extending its Turkey pipeline into Europe, Iran could compete with Russia in one of the world’s largest and most profitable energy markets. But economic sanctions against Iran would likely block it from selling in Europe and make Iran more reliant on its own energy, leaving it with less to export.

Economic concerns may also be key for China’s decision to join in sanctions. Obama has looked the other way on currency manipulation, delaying a report which was expected to denounce Chinese currency policy and could have been a blow to the country’s vital trade income. Though China and the U.S. may experience periods of diplomatic tension, the fact is that the two states’ economic ties are essential for both economies. If China felt it had to choose between the benefits of U.S. trade and the unwanted international precedent of Security Council-led sanctions, the former likely won out. While China was happy to join with Russia in opposing sanctions, Medvedev’s months of cooperation with the West and his supportive signals on sanctions plausibly made it clear that China would have to stand alone or follow Russia’s support.

Critics of Obama’s sanctions plan have persistently argued that sanctions don’t change state behavior, will not effectively deter Iran, or that Iran’s nuclear program is at this point inevitable. Whether or not they are right, China and Russia joining on sanctions could become a watershed moment for Obama’s mission to make rogue nuclear states synonymous with pariah states — and for the United Nations’ ability to take collective, multinational action. Even if this moment of international cooperation does not work, the precedent will make future cooperation easier and more likely.

Daniel Drezner:

Why was Russia unpersuaded?  To date, Russia and China have taken advantage of any Iranian feint towards conciliation as an excuse to delay sanctions.   What’s different now?

I’d suggest three possibilities, which are not mutually exclusive:

1)  Russia is genuinely unpersuaded that Monday’s deal is anything more than marginally useful;

2)  Russia is just as annoyed as the United States at the young whipperrsnapper countries rising powers of the world going rogue in their diplomacy.  Russia is, in many ways, more sensitive to questions about prestige than the United States;

3)  Cynically, there’s little cost to going along with the United States on sanctions that will have very little impact on the Russian-Iranian economic relationship.

Jennifer Rubin at Commentary:

Swell, now what’s in it? And will the Obama administration stop its effort to delay and water down additional congressional sanctions?

Maybe they really are crippling and Obama convinced the Chinese and Russians to go after petroleum sanctions, perhaps the only meaningful tool available that would impact Iran. And maybe it will sail through the Security Council, have a swift impact, and halt the mullahs in their tracks. Or then again, maybe the sanctions aren’t even biting, will only provide cover and more time for the mullahs to work away on their nuclear program, will silence criticism from Jewish groups (OK, they were already silent), will help Obama stave off unilateral sanctions by Congress, and will provide him with further leverage to squash an Israeli military strike. I hope I’m wrong about which alternative will play out.

Doug Mataconis:

There are two problems with this new sanctions regime right off the bat.

First, vigorous enforcement would clearly require stopping a lot of ships coming in and out of the Persian Gulf and, specifically the Strait of Hormuz. Leaving aside the logistics of such an operation, the disruption to shipping alone would seem to be something that few of the “major powers” would really be willing to withstand for a sustained period of time.

Second, it’s not at all clear that Iran really needs all that much more help from the outside to complete it’s nuclear program, and if it does, there are plenty of routes into the Islamic Republic that would bypass any effort to restrict shipping.

If these sanctions are intended to prevent Iran from acquiring crucial technology, it’s likely to be too late for that. If they’re meant to persuade the Iranians to come to the table, they don’t seem to be anywhere near strong enough. All of which brings up the question of whether it’s even possible at this point to stop the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon if that’s what they’re intent on doing.

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