Why Iran Needs a Proactive Policy to Counter US’ Sanctions
A glance at the positions taken by the European countries, Russia, and China following US’ announcement of its withdrawal from the JCPOA shows how these positions were influenced by economic concerns and international status of each actor. Despite their defense of the JCPOA and their rebuke of US’ snap-back of nuclear sanctions, the actual response by these polities will be determined by the harsh realities of the world of international relations, far from any lofty ideals. In the international dynamics that currently govern the global affairs, there is no impartial arbiter to fight against injustice, and each country has to defend itself by increasing its military might and economic power and through alliances with other countries. In the new ambience that has been created by Donald Trump regarding Iran’s nuclear program, each of states engaged in Iran’s nuclear negotiations in one way or other is adjusting itself to the new situation. Let’s review how each of these actors is viewing the post-JCPOA era:
Russia: warning about the fate of JCPOA, but welcoming renewed sanctions
Russia has always followed a perplexing and covert policy against its neighbors, especially Iran. In this vein, Moscow has adopted an equivocal position after Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. The nature of Moscow’s foreign policy and the place that Washington occupies in Russia’s map of foreign affairs can explain why Kremlin acts in this manner in Middle East affairs. Besides its domestic economic challenges, Russia needs to struggle against sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union following its annexation of Crimea, Ukraine. Some analysts tend to call Iran a ‘bargaining chip’ for Russia that gives it a leverage in dealing with the US. While this maybe a reductionist metaphor, it is clear that Moscow has always sought to take full advantage of the status quo in Iran’s nuclear issue. US’ sanctions against Iran’s oil industry can boost Russia’s own oil industry and even force Iran to move into an oil-for-goods deal with the Russians which sounds lucrative for Moscow.
Turkey: Interested in close relations, but quietly happy with sanctions
Among Iran’s neighbors, Turkey holds the highest trade volume. Turks may not suppress their contentment with profits which they have made from sanctions imposed on Iran in the recent decades. Therefore, despite relatively cordial relations, a weakened Iran who sends millions of tourists to Turkey every year and is a major importer of Turkish goods is a blessing for Ankara. With Iran’s isolation in recent decades, energy routes from Central Asia and Caucasus have bypassed Iran and shifted towards Turkey instead, turning Turkey, a country with no major energy sources, into an energy transit hub on the path to Europe.
In the meantime, the growing, export-oriented economy of Turkey is not dominated by megacorporations and therefore, US sanctions against Iran cannot heavily influence its companies. Thus, Turkey is largely immune to US secondary sanctions and that makes them more interested in taking advantage of Iran sanctions.
EU: Prestige prior to economic ties
Since the beginning of negotiations that concluded in the JCPOA nuclear deal, more than seeking economic benefits from collaboration with Iran, Europeans were after increasing the weight and prestige of the European Union in order to act as a heavyweight vis-à-vis the United States, China, and Russia and to play a stronger role in the shifting global order in proportion to their historical standing. Due to the low volume of their trade with Iran (compared to their massive trade volume with the US), Europeans are not much concerned about severance of trade ties between European companies and Iran, a position that has been explicitly iterated by leaders of France and Germany in the recent weeks.
For Trump, bringing Europeans on board in reinstating sanctions against Tehran is more important than gaining the approval of Russia and China. In the same vein, Hassan Rouhani is also focused on negotiations with Europeans to keep them on Iran’s side. Rouhani’s efforts in this regard have faced strong criticism from domestic rivals.
China: Market determines everything
China has its own serious domestic challenges, and at the same time is also worried about US’ intervention in its internal affairs. But Beijing has also got long-term strategic plans in the international area, thus becoming Iran’s most important trade partner through four decades of Tehran-Washington hostility. Unlike Russians, Chinese are clear-cut about their vision and emphasize that they seek a greater global role through economic growth, though they have not set a clear deadline for their goals. Therefore, economic interests and the market guide their relations with other countries. The recent standoff between Beijing and Washington is also economic in nature, a trade war, and not due to political differences.
Saudi Arabia: Happy that the genie is out of the bottle
After Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the anti-Iran rhetoric of Saudi media and the royal family has subsided. Predictable, since Riyadh has reached its goal now that the genie is out of the bottle and is fighting Iran. With the bitter experience of previous Persian Gulf wars, Saudis prefer Washington to contain Iran and do not want to engage in a direct fight with Tehran. They are backing Washington in the standoff through measures such as increasing their oil production to reduce the impact of sanctioning of Iran’s oil exports on the global market.
Israel: Iranophobia at full
Tel Aviv has been the trailblazer of anti-Iran policies in the region. Since nuclear negotiations began in the government of Hassan Rouhani, Israel did its best to sabotage the talks. Undoubtedly, Israel’s goal is not to push Iran out of Syria, but to foster collapse and disintegration of the country. Israel has sold its Iranophobia to many countries in the recent decades and succeeded in forging an alliance with Arab countries. Iran’s strategy against Israel’s malicious attacks is not clear however.
Iran: Harmony needed more than ever
What is Iran’s grand strategy in dealing with these diverse actors? What Iran needs at the moment is a multidimensional diplomatic strategy, one that goes beyond receiving guarantees for oil export or keeping the lifeline for banking transactions. The ultimate goal of Iran’s foreign policy should be not to offset the looming sanctions, but to create an ambience which foils the formation of any new regime of sanctions. Otherwise, Tehran’s policies of the recent years that have aimed to bypass and neutralize US-led sanctions have become virtually ineffective.
Iran’s has been adopted a ‘reactive’ foreign policy in the recent years, in the sense that there is no organized, time-bound schedule to carry out certain diplomatic goals and measures taken have been reactions to other global actors. While Iran’s foreign policy is based on certain presumptions, but these presumptions lack harmony and do not serve as a solid foundation to guide Iran’s diplomacy and its middle-term and long-term actions.
There are certain causes for this lack of harmony. First is the lack of a centralized decision-making center, one that instead of adopting sensational stances, develops a coordinated policy appropriate to Iran’s geopolitical capacities. Lack of consensus on Iran’s foreign policy priorities is another problem. While foreign policy and security agenda is based on economic development for most countries, Iran lacks such a vision. The infrastructure needed for foreign investment, technology transfer, trade with large economies, and extensive international banking transaction, all requirements for integration within the global economy, are at an embryonic state.
Lack of a coordinated strategy may also create misperceptions for other countries. Touting a ‘pivot to East’ policy by some of our decision-makers while new sanctions are on the way is absolutely detrimental to our national interests. Russia and China, rivals for the United States on the global stage, may not only take economic advantage of Iran’s situation, but also try to wield the Iran card against the United States. There needs to be consensus in Iran’s foreign policy to stop creation of such misinterpretations and intriguing foreign actors to take advantage of the unfavorable situation.
* This piece was originally published in Iranian Diplomacy Persian. Links inside the text are added by the translator.