Sanction friction

Age-old divides between the West, Russia and China are being underlined by the sanctions against Iran currently being considered by the UN Security Council.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions currently being pursued by the United States against Iran continued to dominate the headlines late last week, with unnamed Western diplomats claiming that these sanctions – if adopted – would bar the sale of Russia’s S-300 strategic air defence system to Iran. The Russians, for their part, seemed quite surprised to hear this news, and instead of corroborating the claims, issued statements that would indicate the contrary. Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin said that the resolution doesn’t contain a complete embargo on arms supplies to Iran, and that Iran has "the right to self-defence like any other country does.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the sanctions regime being discussed should not stymie the implementation of the uranium swap agreement reached between Iran, Turkey and Brazil. This is the very agreement the United States dismissed. Just one day later, the United States claimed that the UNSC – including Russia and China – declared its full agreement on new sanctions targeting Iran.

There seems to be some sort of miscommunication between the United States-led West and Russia. But the contradiction at the UN is not limited to Russia; rather, it symbolizes a fundamental divide in perception of the institution between the West and the rest.

For the non-Western world, the UN has, since its inception in 1945, represented a tool and an arena with which to constrain Western power. That is because countries in the Western world have comparatively more developed and mobile economies than those in the rest of the world. This generates political power and translates into military power. It is with this military power that Western countries have, particularly since the colonial era began, incited war with – or on the turf of – the rest of the world.

Fast forwarding to today’s world, such global military engagements are theoretically supposed to be checked by international institutions, the most obvious being the UN. Specifically, the UNSC (which includes the Western powers of the United States, United Kingdom, France, and non-Western powers Russia and China) is meant to make sure that all major powers are in agreement before any major international military actions are pursued. This is done by gathering support from all major powers – as well as peripheral countries – via resolutions. But Western countries have shown a tendency to interpret such resolutions liberally, and use them primarily for their own political benefit.

This has particularly been the case in the last decade or so. In 1998, in the lead-up to the 1999 NATO bombing raids on Yugoslavia, there was nothing in the resolutions being circulated within the UNSC that endorsed military action against the regime of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. Coincidentally, there was nothing in the resolutions that called for the eventual hiving off of Kosovo as an independent state. Russia and China opposed both decisions, yet both eventually happened. Had the West ever sought UN legitimization of its actions, Moscow and Beijing would have vetoed it. Nonetheless, the West pushed through with the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia – on dubious legal grounds –backed by the veneer of multilateralism in that the action was undertaken by the multi-state NATO alliance.

The same can be said of the lead-up to the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003. The United States for months attempted to gain approval through UN resolutions for military intervention against the regime of Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein. But as the Russians and the Chinese (as well as even some major Western powers like France and Germany) refused to budge, the United States went in anyway. The move was based on the grounds that the military action was already authorized by previous resolutions calling for military action against Iraq if Hussein was found to be in contravention of a ceasefire.

Through such actions, Western powers have clearly shown that they are willing to pursue UN resolutions that provide justification for international will and intention. At the same time, these same countries have shown they are willing to follow through with their intentions if such resolutions cannot be passed due to opposition from other permanent members, often through some very nimble manoeuvring, as evidenced by the United States’ action in Iraq in 2003.

And this brings us to the latest batch of sanctions being circulated within the UNSC. The leak by the unnamed Western diplomats that these sanctions would bar all Russian weapons transfers to Iran – specifically those Russia deems as a strategic tool in its position with the United States – very likely caused more than a collective raised eyebrow in Moscow, and elsewhere. This is not something the Russians would give away easily, and certainly not something that they would want revealed by anonymous Western officials. Various statements from Moscow indicate that it has only agreed to the sanctions "in principle,” and has yet to fully commit to a final, binding version. Yet the announcement was made regardless, amid US fanfare that all major UNSC powers have agreed to the Iranian sanctions.

We are by no means saying that the West – again led by the United States – is preparing to go to war with Iran. STRATFOR has repeatedly emphasized why this currently is not a particularly viable option. But we are saying that the precedence for diplomatic arm-twisting and in some cases, outright ignoring resolutions to achieve objectives, is there. The bottom line is that the West in general and the United States in particular has ignored UNSC resolutions for quite a while. Multiple wars have been launched without UNSC authorization. Moscow and Beijing have taken notice of this over the years and understand that there are very few negative repercussions in interpreting UN mandates for one’s own benefit. It is therefore highly unlikely that the West on one side, and Russia, China and the rest on the other will interpret the latest resolution on Iran the same way.

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

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