Last week, Russia threw a monkey wrench into the Iran nuclear talks by insisting that any deal removing sanctions from Iran must also remove any sanctions impacting Russian trade with Iran. The talks had supposedly been on the verge of success, with only a few issues remaining.
You might be excused for asking how sanctions put on Russia for her invasion of Ukraine are related to sanctions on Iran for developing nuclear weapons in violation of the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). And the answer would be that they aren’t. But Russia is critical to the deal because part of it is that Iran is supposed to get rid of highly-enriched uranium by sending it to Russia. So the Russians have a lot of leverage.
Israeli officials have argued, correctly, that the deal does not present a significant impediment to Iran’s nuclear program, that it actually legitimizes Iran’s violation of the NPT that it signed, and that it provides a huge pot of money, billions up front in unfrozen accounts and billions in oil revenues going forward.
The Russian action is welcome, insofar as it delays the cash bonanza for Iran – which will be used to support its proxy war in Yemen and its clients Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of whom are waging on-and-off warfare against Israel. The Biden Administration has already acted to free up cash for the Iranian regime, by half-hearted enforcement of oil sanctions and even by waiving sanctions on Iran’s supposedly “civilian” nuclear program. All this is justified as necessary to “show good faith” to move the talks forward; but what it actually does is reduce the pressure on the Iranians, which allows them to harden their stance.
It should be noted that Iranian demands in the Vienna negotiations are no less absurd than the Russian ones. Iran is insisting that all sanctions that have ever been applied to individuals or groups in Iran be removed, whether or not they are related to the nuclear project. So for example, individual sanctions will be removed from Mohsen Rezaei and Ali Akbar Velayati, implicated in the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Argentina in which 85 people were murdered. Another case is Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commander responsible for the 1982 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, where 241 Americans and 58 French soldiers were killed. Even the IRGC itself will no longer be sanctioned.
It helps to understand the Iranian desire for the deal to know that many of the sanctions target individuals and corrupt organizations that in turn benefit individuals. Lifting the sanctions puts money directly into the pockets of people in and close to the Iranian leadership.
American officials claim that without a deal, Iran is galloping toward the nuclear finish line. But it won’t be appreciably slowed even if the deal is signed. At this point, only military action is likely to prevent Iran from reaching its goal. Watching the chaos that the West has been able to create in Russia by its coordinated financial and diplomatic attack, I wonder whether the far-weaker Iran would have been able to withstand a similar attack. The Trump Administration tried – with its “maximum pressure” policy – but it got less cooperation from its partners, and the program was cut short when Trump wasn’t reelected.
The situation might have been different if the Biden Administration hadn’t been so intent on reversing everything Trump did, and if it hadn’t been wedded to the pro-Iranian and anti-Israeli policies of the Obama Administration. It didn’t help that individuals close to Biden told the Iranians to “sit tight” until the new administration came in, because they would get a better deal then.
Iran ratcheted up the pressure on the US last night when it launched about a dozen rockets at the unfinished new American Consulate in Erbil, in the Kurdish autonomous area of Iraq. Several rockets struck a courtyard outside the building (they also claimed to be targeting “Mossad training centers” in the area). No one was hurt, but the attack was obviously intended to send a message to the Americans about what could happen if they didn’t hurry up and give the Iranians what they want. Technically this is an act of war, but the US hasn’t responded to similar attacks in the last few months, in order not to disrupt negotiations (although it would seem that the attacks themselves ought to be considered disruptive).
Why did the Russians upset the Iranian applecart? I doubt that they realistically expected that the US would agree to make an exception to the Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia for trade with Iran, especially now when the world is brimming over with indignation over the Russian invasion. It is at least in part a way of punishing the Biden administration for supporting Ukraine, and warning it not to intervene any further.
It is also a gift to Israel. But it’s not clear what Israel has done to deserve it. Israel has tried very hard to remain neutral, not easy when two of the world’s superpowers are pulling in opposite directions. Just today Foreign Minister Yair Lapid condemned Russia for invading Ukraine “without justification.” At the same time, the US has joined Ukraine in asking Israel to impose economic sanctions on Russia, something that I strongly doubt will happen. Indeed, I’m not sure why the Americans would ask for this, other than to embarrass Israel. We are not among Russia’s top trading partners, and Israeli sanctions would have little effect on Russia.
The invasion of Ukraine and the war that has followed has been shocking to Europeans and North Americans who believed that except for rogue states in less-developed parts of the world, diplomacy mediated by international law and institutions has replaced raw force as the way to settle disputes. Israelis, too, sometimes fancy themselves part of this modern, post-violence, sophisticated world, until the repeated viciousness of their local enemies reminds them that they are not. This explains the perennial frustration of American, European, (and elite Israeli) “peace processors.”
But with the decline of the Pax Americana, the atavistic forces formerly found only on the continent of Africa or in the Middle East have encroached into the eastern part of Europe. Unless the West is prepared to take back its world leadership – if it can – I expect to see more of this sort of thing.
The short-term plans of the Iranian regime are limited to the Middle East, but if it is allowed to continue on its course of developing long-range missiles and nuclear warheads, it will quickly become a threat to Europe as well.
If the price of ignoring Russian ambitions in Europe is beginning to look like WWII, disregarding Iran’s global ones might appear more like WWIII.