June 11, 2010
Number 06/10 #04
As readers are probably aware, a new UN Security Council sanctions resolution directed against Iran’s nuclear program was passed on Wednesday (the exact text is here.) This Update is devoted to analysis of the likely effect and efficacy of the compromise deal on sanctions that was eventually passed.
First up is Washington Post columnist and analyst Jackson Diehl, who attempts to figure out how Iran’s leaders will see this outcome (publicly they angrily dismissed it – or blamed the “Zionists”). He argues that they will have many reasons for satisfaction with things as they stand: the sanctions do not include Iran’s energy sector, they come later than the US Administration wanted, the isolation effect on Iran is weakened by recent Brazilian and Turkish support for Iran and vote against the UN resolution, and Iran’s regime appears to be getting on top of the “Green” opposition. For Diehl’s full exploration of Iran’s view, CLICK HERE. Further sceptical views of the sanctions’ efficacy come from David Sanger of the New York Times and George Jahn of AP as well as columnist Charles Krauthammer.
Next up, Israeli security commentator Ronen Bergman offers a more positive view of the sanctions outcome, saying that the sanctions are meaningful, and should not be belittled. He argues that collectively, the existing and new sanctions on Iran “have a significant tactical effect on Iran’s defense establishment, military industries, intelligence community, and nuclear program.” However, he does conclude that the new sanctions will not affect the regime’s determination to pursue nuclear weapons, and only sanctions endangering regime survival – which these do not – can do so. For his look at all the pros and cons of the new sanctions, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Iran analyst Mehdi Khalaji looks at the new sanctions in the context of Iran’s domestic politics. He points out that the Iranian Green opposition is very much opposed to a nuclear deal with the West – primarily out of fear that it would strengthen the ruling regime. He explores in detail how the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Green movement leaders see each other and external pressure over the nuclear program. For all his valuable insights into what is going on inside Iran, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Positive Israeli public reactions to the sanctions resolution from Israeli PM Netanyahu and President Peres, with the latter calling for “moral sanctions” as the next step.
- Interesting editorials on the new sanctions resolution from the Jerusalem Post and Washington Post.
- Interesting explorations in the Washington Post of both Iran’s efforts to build external alliances with countries like Turkey and Brazil, and the differing views on the significance of the fact that this sanctions resolution, unlike all past such resolutions, was not unanimous.
- An initial report that, in the wake of the sanctions, Russia was not going to sell Iran S-300 anti-aircraft missiles – which would make Iran’s nuclear sites all but militarily invulnerable – has now been denied by Russia.
- A proliferation specialist demands the International Atomic Energy Agency also get tough with Syria’s nuclear non-cooperation.
- Iranian exile writer Amir Taheri reports that Iran is changing its presentation of Israel from powerful and aggressive to small, weak and doomed and gaining influence doing so.
- A video urging human rights pressure on Iran on the anniversary of Iran’s stolen election.
- Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was in Washington yesterday meeting US President Obama and saying some positive things to Jewish leaders. Barry Rubin is critical of the US Administration’s handling of the visit and language.
By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post “Post-Partisan” online blog
June 9, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
The Obama administration is claiming a diplomatic triumph today with the U.N. Security Council’s passage of new sanctions against Iran. But the Iranian government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also has some reason for satisfaction. The resolution passed in New York, it can argue, is late, weak and more likely to ease than increase Iran’s diplomatic isolation.
It’s not hard to imagine the briefing an Iranian government spinner might be delivering in Tehran today. Consider, he might say, what President Obama once promised: that a refusal by Iran to begin serious negotiations about curbing its nuclear program would lead to “crippling” sanctions, beginning in the fall of 2009. During his presidential campaign, Obama even suggested that the sanctions would target Iran’s gasoline imports — which many experts have described as the Achilles heel of its economy.
The sanctions approved today don’t touch Iran’s gasoline or its domestic energy sector. They will allow China to continue developing three large oil fields as well as oil refineries that will eliminate Iran’s need for gasoline imports. They will permit Russia to switch on the Busheir nuclear plant this summer. The Obama administration failed to obtain direct sanctions against Iran’s central bank or its state shipping line. And its ban on weapons sales contains a giant loophole: Russia will have the leeway to deliver an advanced anti-aircraft missile system, the S-300, which would be Iran’s best defense against an air attack on its nuclear installations by the United States or Israel.
By the way, Ahmadinejad’s spinner might add: the sanctions came six months later than the United States wanted. During that time Iran’s centrifuges have enriched more than 2,000 pounds of uranium, increasing a stockpile sufficient for one atomic bomb to one that could provide two with further enrichment. And the further enrichment has begun: Tehran has recently begun raising the enrichment level of part of its uranium from 3.5 percent to 20 percent — still short of the 90 percent needed for weapons, but closer.
What about the global diplomatic shaming inherent in being the subject of a U.N. Security Council resolution? Take a closer look, the Iranian briefer can argue. The three previous U.N. sanctions resolutions passed without a negative vote; two were adopted unanimously, the third with one abstention.This one drew one abstention, from Lebanon, and two negative votes from rising regional powers that until now have been reliable U.S. allies: Brazil and Turkey, a member of NATO.
The appearance of the Turkish and Brazilian presidents with Ahamdinejad in Tehran last month — and their strong opposition to sanctions — was arguably as large a diplomatic coup for Iran as today’s U.N. vote is for the United States. It showed that Iran’s international support is getting stronger even as it gets closer to producing a bomb. China and Russia are far from lost: Ahmadinejad will be visiting Shanghai on Friday to inaugurate Iran’s pavillion at the city’s world fair.
Ahmadinejad is getting stronger at home, as well. A few months ago he and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei were fighting with the opposition Green movement for control of the streets of Tehran and other major cities. Now, with the anniversary of the fraudulent election that touched off that rebellion approaching this Saturday, the streets are quiet. For now, at least, the Green movement has been quelled. Though some of the sanctions passed yesterday are aimed at the Revolutionary Guards, none will make it harder for the regime’s shock troops to maintain domestic control.
So the Obama administration can celebrate today, Ahmadinejad’s briefer will argue. In public we will respond angrily. In private, we have reason to celebrate — because today our government is closer to producing a nuclear bomb and more secure both at home and abroad than it was a year ago.
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Latest Iran sanctions not a devastating blow, but they are meaningful
We should not belittle the American achievement manifested through the Security Council’s decision to impose further sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program.
The US managed to pass the resolution almost unanimously, and more importantly, elicit the support of both Russia and China, which thus far traditionally resisted harsher sanctions against Iran.
It wasn’t simple: The US invested immense diplomatic efforts since the end of December 2009 and up until a few minutes before Wednesday’s vote. The effort succeeded despite the diplomatic backing elicited by Iran from Brazil and Turkey after Tehran agreed to enrich its uranium outside its territory.
The Chinese delegation to the UN, controlled by aggressive Foreign Minister Yang, indeed introduced many changes to the draft decision and minimized the scope of the sanctions. However, we should note that it was the very same Yang who in February declared that China will not agree to any new sanctions of any type.
Here in Israel there is a tendency to belittle, at least publically, the effect of the sanctions on Iran. The new sanctions are said to be far from being “paralyzing,” to use the term utilized by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet this statement is only partially true.
The sanctions imposed on Iran thus far, and the new moves imposed Wednesday, have a significant tactical effect on Iran’s defense establishment, military industries, intelligence community, and nuclear program. These sanctions focus directly on these elements. They attempt to undermine Iran’s ability to purchase equipment aboard, including raw materials, technological systems, and weapons.
Sanctions won’t hurt regime
These sanctions hurt the economic mechanisms that fund the activity of the Revolutionary Guards, and undermine the ability of Iranian purchasers abroad to acquire technology and know-how for the nuclear program. The sanctions are also meant to harm several companies at the forefront of Iran’s nuke program. The moves aim is to deprive Iran of the ability to purchase all sorts of combat systems.
In addition, the sanctions are meant to limit the movement of dozens of people connected to the Iranian nuclear program. The intention here is to show those figures that if they continue assisting the nuclear development project, not only official Iranian institutions may be punished, but individuals too.
The bad news is that all of this will apparently not change Iran’s determination to work towards a bomb. On the strategic level, the sanctions will only undermine the Ayatollah regime’s strength to a small extent, if at all. Most experts who monitor events in Iran believe that the regime will draw back from the race for nukes only if it feels that its very existence is hanging on the balance.
According to this doctrine, the Iranian regime is developing nuclear weapons as an insurance policy aimed at ensuring its survival and preventing American and Israeli attacks.
Only sanctions that will severely undermine the Iranian economy and cause distress to the Iranian people may make the regime feel its future is in danger, and prompt it to reconsider the whole idea. Yet the sanctions imposed on Tehran Wednesday are not like that.
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By Mehdi Khalaji
June 9, 2010
Although the United Nations Security Council has now voted for new sanctions against Tehran, the Iranian regime and opposition — preoccupied this week with the anniversary of last year’s fraudulent presidential election — seem more concerned about domestic political struggles. To outsiders, it is an often-confusing contest, with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continuing to support President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad while leaders of the opposition Green Movement choose their battles carefully.
Yet despite the introverted nature of their struggle, both sides recognize the potential domestic political impact of a nuclear agreement — even the controversial trilateral Turkey-Brazil-Iran proposal — with the international community. The leaders of the opposition Green Movement are against such a development, believing that any deal with the current regime would lend legitimacy to Ahmadinezhad’s presidency and weaken their pro-democracy movement. Mir Hossein Mousavi, one of last year’s presidential candidates and now an opposition leader, disapproved strongly of both the October 2009 and May 2010 fuel-swap proposals for the Tehran Research Reactor. He even described last month’s Turkey/Brazil-brokered agreement as “another Treaty of Turkmenchay” (an 1828 accord with Russia signed by an incompetent Iranian king and seen as humiliating to Iran).
For the regime’s part, although Khamenei probably considers even the trilateral deal an unjustified interference in Iran’s sovereign rights, others in the regime believe that a trilateral nuclear deal could have a domestic political bonus. In particular, an agreement with some measure of international recognition would complicate U.S. diplomacy, divert attention from the internal crisis, and marginalize any further waves of protests.
Khamenei’s Uncompromising Vision
Despite the recent absence of street protests, the opposition’s rhetorical attacks on the regime have grown increasingly radical, describing Khamenei’s leadership as ruthless, unjust, and contrary to Islam, democracy, and human rights. There seems little prospect of any compromise between the two sides. Although Green activists insist that they seek reform and not revolution or regime change, Khamenei is firmly convinced otherwise. He believes that what he calls fitna — the unrest provoked by the opposition — is a threat to his rule, not merely a reaction against Ahmadinezhad and his rigged electoral victory. In his view, the Greens are an extension of the West’s “soft war” against the Islamic Republic and therefore connected to Western governments and intelligence agencies.
More specifically, Khamenei believes that the opposition’s goals are threefold: (1) to remove him from power or significantly limit his authority, (2) to neutralize the regime’s military forces, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Basij militia, and (3) to establish a state based on the Western model of democracy, human rights, women’s rights, cultural pluralism, and religious tolerance. It does not matter to him that the Greens reject the use of violence — as long as they pursue subversive goals, the regime is entitled to crack down with all means at its disposal.
More than anything else, this perception of subversion has motivated Khamenei’s actions over the past year. He has jailed the heads of two prominent reformist groups (Mosharekat-e Iran-e Islami and Mujahedin-e Enghelab-e Islami), deprived reformists of any kind of media platform, and made it illegal to quote Mousavi or another 2009 presidential contender, Mehdi Karrubi, in the press.
Khamenei’s vision has led him to crack down even on former colleagues and important political figures, including Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the leader of two significant political bodies — the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council — and a former president who helped Khamenei come to power. For example, the attorney general has filed lawsuits against three of Rafsanjani’s children, accusing them of giving government money to reformist candidates and encouraging people to protest. One of Rafsanjani’s sons was compelled to flee the country in the face of serious threats. Meanwhile, another former president, Muhammad Khatami, is banned from leaving the country. Even the family of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is not immune from the Supreme Leader’s paranoia: during a June 4 speech on the anniversary of his grandfather’s death, Hassan Khomeini was interrupted by a hostile pro-Khamenei crowd.
These developments amount to a struggle over who has inherited the legacy of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Mousavi and Rafsanjani were closer to Khomeini than Khamenei ever was, but the latter remains convinced of his mandate. In his own June 4 speech, Khamenei not only compared himself to Ali, the first (and infallible) Shiite Imam, but also likened opposition leaders to the companions of the Prophet Muhammad who had squabbled over the leadership of Islam after his death.
Pressure to Be Even More Hardline
Khamenei is also facing divisions within the ruling elite. Although conservatives rallied behind Ahmadinezhad following the contested election, divisions at the top are increasingly apparent today, as demonstrated by recent statements from Ahmad Jannati, the powerful Guardian Council secretary and once-passionate advocate of the president. On May 28, Jannati stated that “post-election turmoil prevented us from criticizing Ahmadinezhad’s government, but it does not mean that we are without criticism…¦. We refrained from publicizing our criticism and complaints for the sake of expediency and because we did not want them to be exploited by people who are involved in the unrest, but how long must we keep silent?” Jannati was one of several officials who publicly called on the government and judiciary to execute more prisoners and treat protesters more harshly.
A Costly President
Although Ahmadinezhad once seemed the ideal president for Khamenei — fully loyal to the Supreme Leader and his revolutionary ideals — he has turned out to be very costly over the past year. For example, he has run into fierce opposition from regime conservatives in the predominantly conservative Majlis. The parliament continues to fight Ahmadinezhad over economic issues, leading the president to repeatedly complain that the body is uncooperative. On May 31, deputy Majlis speaker Muhammad Reza Bahonar accused him of “purposefully” violating the law. And last year, after Ahmadinezhad presented his list of ministers to the legislature for a vote of confidence, Bahonar said that eight or nine of the nominees would not have been voted through without the Supreme Leader’s direct recommendation. Indeed, were it not for Khamenei’s backing, the Majlis could have opposed the president much more easily.
In the past, Iranian presidents were considered responsible for their own policies. But since last year’s turmoil, Khamenei has come to identify himself personally with Ahmadinezhad’s presidency. This shift in responsibility makes Khamenei a very fragile and combustible figure. And Ahmadinezhad, lacking a solid power base within the political elite, is in an even more fragile position. If Khamenei were to withdraw his support, the president could be removed very easily.
Many in the United States seem hopeful that the Iranian opposition will support more appealing policy preferences than the regime itself. Given current circumstances, however, there are some issues on which Green Movement leaders cannot be expected to express sympathetic views. These include the legacy of Ayatollah Khomeini, relations with the United States, attitudes toward Israel, and the nuclear program. In many cases, revealing their true views on these subjects would likely expose the Greens to numerous risks, including fragmentation and government wrath. Instead, they are attempting to unite and mobilize people by focusing on democracy and human rights.
An optimistic interpretation of Khamenei’s position would be that as his rule has become more authoritarian, it has also become more divisive and fragile, thus helping the opposition attract support in those parts of Iranian society that have seemed silent. Although the Greens may not be able to show up on the streets by the millions as they did a year ago, they have succeeded in damaging the regime’s legitimacy, weakening the appeal of populist, self-promoting public ceremonies, and making it costlier for the government to stage any future rigged elections. A new ingredient in the domestic political debate may turn out to be the close, but unintentional coincidence of today’s UN Security Council vote and the June 12 anniversary of the disputed elections.
Mehdi Khalaji is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute, focusing on the politics of Iran and Shiite groups in the Middle East.