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Iran’s Power Brokers

Author: Greg Bruno
Updated: April 17, 2008


Amid another round of crisis diplomacy on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia and China appear to hold ever more potent cards. Energy-rich Iran has turned to them for financial and political help. U.S. and EU negotiators, meanwhile, need Russian and Chinese support on the UN Security Council to levy tougher international sanctions—or at least a promise not to veto them. The stakes continue to move higher. In March, Iran applied for full membership to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an intergovernmental security organization headed by Russia and China. Pyotr Goncharov, a political commentator for the Russian news agency Novosti, writes that Iran has more than enough economic cause to gain entry. The real issue, he says, is whether China and Russia are willing to look past (Middle East Times) the nuclear question.

In many ways, they already have. China is Iran’s second-largest importer of crude oil, accounting for 335,000 barrels a day in 2006, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Beijing recently inked a $2 billion deal to develop the Yadavaran oilfield in southern Iran, and is considering investing in Iran’s natural gas sector. Overall trade volume has spiked in the last decade, up from $1.2 billion in 1998 to what an Iranian official said was $20 billion (Press TV). Moscow, for its part, maintains close military ties with Tehran (AP) and sells the country nuclear fuel (Reuters). A visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Iran in October 2007, capped by a rare welcome from Iran’s supreme leader, was seen as a blow to U.S.-backed efforts to isolate Tehran (CSMonitor).

Talks this week in Shanghai involving Russia, China, the United States, and EU powers yielded no clear end to the impasse (AP). China and Russia favor enticements that would reward Iran for abandoning its enrichment activities; the United States and Western allies, which suspect Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability, prefer a sanctions-based approach. The UN Security Council approved a third round of sanctions in March, increasing the monitoring of Iranian financial institutions, extending travel bans, and freezing assets. But critics who considered the measure too soft aren’t holding out hope for tougher moves in China this week. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has already said she doesn’t expect major changes.

Nonetheless, there are signs Moscow and Beijing are softening to U.S. pressure. President Bush, who met with Putin on April 6 in Sochi, praised the Russian leader for his commitment to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. China has also hinted at cooperation. The Associated Press reports that Beijing supplied the International Atomic Energy Agency with information about Iran’s nuclear program.

Amid the stepped-up diplomacy, Iran is hardening its nuclear posture. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced on April 8 that Tehran is installing an additional six thousand centrifuges (Fars) at its Natanz uranium-enrichment facility. Some nuclear experts are skeptical of Iran’s claims (RFE/RL), since past Iranian pronouncements have proven exaggerated. Still, others see reason to tighten the noose. In an editorial, the New York Times writes that while there is consensus Iran is moving closer to the technical know-how to build a bomb, “the big powers can’t come up with a strategy” to put the brakes on.

Beyond the outcome of the Shanghai meetings there is the question of long-term U.S. policy toward Iran. International Herald Tribune columnist John Vinocur argues the Bush administration’s diplomatic blunders have pushed the Iranian problem to the next president. But by 2009 Iran’s ties with regional heavyweights will be further entrenched. An analysis of the blossoming relationship between Iran and China, published by the Asia Pacific electronic journal Japan Focus, argues that U.S.-backed sanctions on Tehran have essentially pushed Iran into Asia’s arms. Kathy Gockel of the Stanley Foundation sees that same trend with Russia.

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