Moscow's betrayal?

On the face of it, Russia's decision to vote in favour of new UN sanctions against Iran is a slap in the face for Tehran. But the sanctions include plenty of loopholes.

A day after Russia joined its fellow permanent UN Security Council members in passing a fresh round of sanctions against Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization, coolly told Iranian Al Alam TV that "Iran has been under sanctions and economic, technological and political blockade for over 30 years – We got used to it.”

Iran may be used to a lot of things, but it is having an exceptionally difficult time getting used to the idea of Russia – long considered Iran’s primary power patron – hanging Tehran out to dry. Iran made no secret of its displeasure with Moscow in the lead up to the sanctions vote, releasing statement after statement warning the Kremlin of the consequences of turning its back on Tehran. Now having received the sanctions slap in the face, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is staging his defiance by cancelling his trip to the Russian and Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tashkent June 11, while Iran’s oil minister has postponed a June 22 visit to Russia.

This is by no means the first time Iran has been betrayed by its Russian ally. After all, Russia voted in the affirmative the previous six times the UNSC passed sanctions resolutions against Iran. Those previous sanctions were a symbolic show of force against Iran and, everyone, including Iran, knew they lacked real bite and suffered from the enforceability dilemma. This latest round of sanctions will face the same enforcement challenges and were careful to avoid touching Iran’s energy trade so as to get Russian and Chinese buy-in. That said, this did not end up being a fluff resolution.

The newest resolution expands travel and financial sanctions on Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps entities – a preponderant force in the Iranian economy. The sanctions also go beyond inspections of Iranian air cargo to the seizure and disposal of Iranian contraband travelling by air or sea and that could be used for military purposes. Instead of calling on states to exercise vigilance and restraint in the supply, transfer or sale of offensive weapons to Iran, the new resolution bans all of the above. Like previous resolutions, this one bars Iran from all enrichment-related activity, but now also emphasizes the construction of new nuclear sites. In short, this sanctions round expands the list of things Iran supposedly cannot do, while it allows action by interested states to interfere with a broader range of Iranian activities.

No sanctions resolution would be complete, however, without its caveats. With no real legal mechanism to enforce across international boundaries, the level of adherence to the sanctions will be left for the individual states to decide. A closer look at the sanctions text also reveals a number of loopholes by Russian design. For example, Iran may be banned from nuclear and enrichment activities, and other countries may be banned from making nuclear investments in Iran, but Russia contends that in projects like the Bushehr nuclear power plant (and even future projects), it is not making such an "investment” if Iran is the one paying for the construction and training, and if the project and training are taking place on Iranian soil. Russia was also careful to include enough fine print in the clause banning arms sales to Iran to exempt a long-threatened Russian sale of the S-300 air defence system to Iran.

With more holes than Swiss cheese, the sanctions are by no means a call to war. But Iran’s biggest fear goes beyond the actual text of the sanctions and into the meat of the negotiations currently taking place between Russia and the United States.

STRATFOR has been closely tracking a coming shift in Russia’s foreign policy, one that would emphasize pragmatism over belligerence in dealing with the United States over thorny issues like Iran. Russia hopes to obtain much-needed Western technology and investment to modernize its economy and ensure Moscow’s long-term competitiveness in the global system. While the United States and Russia have (for now) agreed to disagree on more contentious issues like US military support for Poland and Georgia, the Russian decision to move against Iran with this sanctions resolution is quite telling of the progress made thus far in their negotiations. And for those outstanding points of contention, Russia still has the S-300 and Bushehr levers to wave in Washington’s face should its negotiations with the United States take a turn for the worse. Meanwhile, Washington has just acquired a very useful tool to bolster its negotiating position vis-a-vis Iran: the prospect of Russia abandoning its premier Mideast ally.

The Iranians have long known that their alliance with Russia stood on shaky ground, but they also worked fastidiously to try and keep US-Russian relations as agonizing as possible to avoid being put in this very position. This is not to say Iran would be coming to the negotiating table empty handed when it faced Washington. After all, Iran still has very strong levers against the United States in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan that it can flare up at its time of choosing. The question in our heads then is whether that time may be approaching. As Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday, "It is now the Islamic Republic’s turn to make the next move.”

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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