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Turning the Screws on Iran

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: August 20, 2007

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The Bush administration’s plans to target the business dealings (IHT) of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the largest branch of the country’s armed services, set in motion what is expected to be a lively new round of diplomacy aimed at getting Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. The administration’s point man on Iran policy, Undersecretary R. Nicholas Burns, earlier this month predicted “increasingly tough” international action against Iran because they refuse to negotiate and they refuse to slow down their nuclear efforts.” The United States has been the motor behind such action through a two-pronged approach involving UN Security Council sanctions and separate initiatives by the U.S. Treasury Department to pressure (BusinessWeek) Western financial institutions to cut off dealings with Iran. Activities in both arenas are expected to intensify in the next few months.

U.S. officials reportedly are still debating (WashPost) whether to target the entire Revolutionary Guard Corps, or only the Guard’s Quds Force. The force is linked to arming Shiite militants in Iraq and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. Top U.S. intelligence official Michael McConnell recently told CFR.org there is “overwhelming evidence” of this, though Iran denies the accusation (VOA). Since the United States has few business dealings with Iran, the effect of the terrorist designation is expected to be further pressure on foreign governments and companies to end business ties with Iran. Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran at the Carnegie Endowment, tells CFR.org that a powerful hardline clique in the Revolutionary Guards is reaping billions of dollars in contracts related to the oil industry and major infrastructure projects.  

The reported U.S. plans heighten the intrigue surrounding Iran at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which got underway in Kyrgyzstan on August 16. Formed initially to cooperate against terrorism, the organization is increasingly seen as a counterbalance to U.S. influence in Central Asia. Iran attended the summit as an observer, with some reports suggesting Russia would use the occasion to push for Iran’s membership (FT). There were no formal moves to admit Iran as a full member of the group, although a concluding statement at the summit was seen as a warning to the United States (AP) about interference in the region. “Stability and security in Central Asia are best ensured primarily through efforts taken by the nations of the region on the basis of the existing regional associations,” the statement said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's presence at the summit will likely raise concern in Washington at a time when it is trying to heighten Iran’s isolation. The Power and Interest News Report, an independent analysis group, notes a number of energy deals were concluded at last year’s summit in Shanghai and group member China is intent on increasing oil imports from Iran. Energy cooperation (Eurasia Daily Monitor) appeared to be a major focus this year as well. In the Asia Times, analyst Kaveh Afrasiabi writes closer ties with the Shanghai group could give Iran “breathing space” from pressures over its nuclear program. “After all,” he writes. “Iran can also play transit route for the Arab states of Persian Gulf seeking trade and investment in the landlocked Central Asian states.” And having the ear of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China doesn’t hurt either.

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