A resilient Iran shields itself from pressure by building alliances

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to New York in May for the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to New York in May for the Non-Proliferation Treaty conference. (Bulent Kilic/agence France-presse Via Getty Images)
By Thomas Erdbrink and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

TEHRAN -- A year ago, Iran was on its way to becoming a pariah state. Dozens of governments accused Iranian leaders of stealing the presidential election and condemned the brutal crackdown on protesters that followed. The country faced sanctions and international scorn over its controversial nuclear program.

Now, even as the U.N. Security Council prepares to impose its fourth round of sanctions on Iran with a vote slated for Wednesday, Tehran is demonstrating remarkable resilience, insulating some of its most crucial industries from U.S.-backed financial restrictions and building a formidable diplomatic network that should help it withstand some of the pressure from the West. Iranian leaders are meeting politicians in world capitals from Tokyo to Brussels. They are also signing game-changing energy deals, increasing their economic self-sufficiency and even gaining seats on international bodies.

Iran's ability to navigate such a perilous diplomatic course, analysts say, reflects both Iranian savvy and U.S. shortcomings as up-and-coming global players attempt to challenge U.S. supremacy, and look to Iran as a useful instrument.

"We are very proud of our diplomacy, although we are mainly benefiting from mistakes made by the United States and its allies," said Kazem Jalali, a key member of the Iranian parliament's commission on national security and foreign policy. "We are using all our resources to exploit these weaknesses."

The U.S. push for sanctions is facing strong headwinds in the Security Council, which is likely to be divided on its approach to Iran for the first time in more than four years. U.S. and European diplomats say the vote is assured passage in the 15-nation council. But they think Brazil, Lebanon and Turkey will either abstain or vote against the resolution.

The measure would modestly reinforce a range of economic, high-technology and military sanctions against Iran, and target more than 40 Iranian elites and companies linked to the nation's nuclear program with a travel ban and an asset freeze. Iran has repeatedly rebuffed calls to halt its uranium-enrichment program; Iranian leaders say their efforts are entirely peaceful, but the United States and others say Iran is set on building a bomb.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the U.N. resolution "the most significant sanctions that Iran has ever faced."

But in another sign of the fragile nature of Washington's anti-Iran alliance, the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran convened a regional security summit Tuesday to emphasize the realignment of military power in the region. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who backs U.N. sanctions, said the measures should not "be excessive" or impose undue hardship on the Iranian leadership or the Iranian people.

The new U.S.-backed measures have been watered down enough that Tehran's crucial oil sector will probably be spared, and Russia's and China's business dealings with Iran will go largely untouched.

U.N. constituency

Iran has benefited from a solid constituency at the United Nations. In one particularly eye-catching move, Iran was elected a member of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in May, just weeks before the start of an aggressive campaign to arrest women with "inappropriate" clothing on Tehran's streets.

At the month-long review conference for the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York, also in May, Iranian diplomats, aligning themselves with other developing nations, obstructed U.S. attempts to alter the covenant. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to the United States to address the conference, where he called on world powers to destroy their nuclear weapons.

Some question Iran's diplomatic ascendance, saying that Tehran severely miscalculated its handling of the nuclear crisis, losing support from China and Russia.

"Rising and risen powers like China, Russia and Brazil will continue to flirt with Tehran, but when it comes crunch time, they know this is a core issue for the United States. And they're not going to jeopardize their most important relationship to please the Iranians," said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

U.N. officials and outside observers note that existing sanctions have heightened pressure on Iran, leading to the frequent seizure of vessels caught supplying Iran with banned materials and weapons. Iran will now have to brace for a range of banking and financial sanctions that will complicate its efforts to do business and to acquire nuclear technology. U.S. and European sanctions could follow.

"Stuff they got easily five or six years ago they are struggling to get now," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. Albright said that while the sanctions are not crippling Iran, they are potentially delaying the day when Iran can declare itself a nuclear weapons power.

Shifting alliances

Still, it is clear that Iran's grievances with the United States have resonated with a broader audience, particularly among a group of rising economic powers, including Brazil, Turkey and India, that have emerged from the world recession with greater economic might and that are demanding more influence on the world stage. They see the Security Council as reflecting the power structure of a bygone era.

"The Iranians won't like the sanctions; but they will see this as a situation where they can actually come out ahead," said Flynt Leverett, a former Middle East specialist at the National Security Council and a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation. "Brazil and the Turks will also use this as an opening to raise more public questions about the legitimacy of the Security Council."

Leverett and other analysts say Iran has taken steps to shield itself from sanctions such as planned U.S. measures targeting Iran's gas sector. Iran has expanded its capacity to refine its own crude. It has also signed gas deals with non-Western countries such as China and Venezuela.

Meanwhile, new investment is being marshaled to develop pipelines that would carry Iranian gas through Turkey to European countries, including Austria and Germany, that are hoping to reduce their dependence on Russia. "This love story between Turkey and Iran has a lot to do with fact that Iran really needs Turkey to reach European gas," said Gal Luft, executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

Luft said that while some of the financial sanctions "may hurt" Iran, he does not think they will change its behavior. Four years ago, Luft conducted an analysis of Iran's consumption of refined petroleum products, showing that more than 40 percent came from abroad. That figure he said, is now closer to 25 percent, making U.S. sanctions on gas imports increasingly irrelevant.

"The U.S. Congress is conveniently unaware of all this," Luft said. "They are pushing for this straw man, which is gasoline sanctions, but the horse is out of the stable."

Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company