Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Iran Endgame: Parallels with North Korea

It looks like the United States is going to get precious little satisfaction from the new UN sanctions (see China and the Iran Sanctions Follies for details).

I attribute this to the fact that the world looked at US actions over the last two months and saw it excessively lenient with a genuine nuclear threat—North Korea—but disturbingly confrontational with a faux nuclear power, Iran, dispatching an additional carrier group to the Gulf, detaining Iranian officials in Irbil, and playing the “force protection” card to threaten military action.

Under the circumstances, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for following the lead of one conflicted but chronically violent superpower.

In its details, the endgame on Iran seems to be eerily recapitulating the deal with North Korea—only this time Russia is playing the frustrated intermediary role instead of China.

There has been a certain amount of attention given to Russia’s stated dissatisfaction with Iran’s nuclear stance, as revealed in authoritative leaks to three Russian newspapers:

Iran's defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency has caused Russia to suffer "losses in relation to its foreign policy and image, but they insist on their line," the anonymous official said, as quoted by Itar-Tass.

"Iran with a nuclear bomb or a potential for its creation is impermissible for us," the official said. "We will not play with them in anti-American games. . . . The Iranians are abusing our constructive attitude and have done nothing to help us convince our colleagues of Tehran's consistency."

Presumably they have telephones connecting Moscow and Tehran well-suited to the delivery of expressions of exasperated menace, so one purpose of sending this message publicly via Moscow’s bespoke media is Russia’s desire to curry favor with the United States—which is going to swallow some pretty lame new “action” on sanctions, largely in part because of Russian resistance—by making a display of impatience with Iran.

But that’s not all.

There are certainly genuine differences between Moscow and Tehran.

I think that Russian behavior, objectives, and concerns vis a vis Iran parallel China’s over North Korea.

In both cases, the dominant regional power is protecting a client state, but at the same time doesn’t want the client to exploit nuclear weapons to achieve foreign policy freedom of action and pursue goals that might conflict with those of the patron.

Russia would be happy to say Iran discard its uranium enrichment program, just as China would be happy to see North Korea abandon its nuclear pretensions.

There’s no question that Russia would love Iran having a “Come to Allah” moment where it renounced its uranium program and Russia gets some international cred as the indispensable intermediary—like China did with the North Korea deal.

But even if Tehran refuses to play ball and cleaves fanatically to its uranium program, there is no question of Moscow allowing the United States to claim a pretext for attack or harassment under UN auspices by allowing significant economic sanctions, let alone military action.

Unfortunately, protecting the client in the crisis gives the client the idea it can act with impunity.

And success in resisting US demands for dangerously open-ended sanctions brings with it the concern that, with the receding threat, the client won’t consider its patron so necessary—or noble--anymore.

That’s what I think is at work in the harrumphing over the Bushehr transaction, with both sides claiming the other isn’t living up to the bargain..

The glue in patron-client relations is the external threat.

Once the external threat is gone and the awkward issue of conflicting goals comes up, things turn nasty.

The patron quickly finds the client ungrateful—in this instance, for vital diplomatic cover—and the client suddenly objects to getting hosed in financial arrangements for glorious adventures in economic cooperation that suddenly look like crappy, exploitative deals.

That’s how it’s been between North Korea and China

So I take the Russian display of dissatisfaction as a sign that another toothless UN resolution is a distinct and immediate possibility.

Without it, the Russians fear a loss of that vital political and security commodity: leverage.


Asad said...

"ball and cleaves fanatically" I think you mean clings not cleaves.

Iran is not really that much of a client state to Russia, they would much rather have a relationship with China than with Russia.

And there won't be any come to allah moment for Iran, there might be pauses in the nuclear program but no matter what government is in charge they will pursue a path to obtain the capability to produce nuclear deterrent, the Iran-Iraq war casts a long shadow over the population.

China Hand said...

Yes, asad, much discussion over the "cleaves" issue but with Biblical sanction on the Shibboleth issue, (as in "his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth")it can be used for "clinging or sticking". It will be interesting to see what happens when Ahminjead comes to speak in front of the UN in New York. It would overjoy the Russians and give them much face if he agreed to freeze the uranium program (by the way, it's been interesting how the whole issue of whether the Russians are pushing for a brief freeze (in tandem with a sanctions freeze); a temporary freeze (in which Tehran agrees to stop uranium enrichment for an indeterminant time while negotiations take place); and a permanent freeze (in which Iran simply abandons its uranium enrichment plans) has been muddied up in the accounts I've read. But I would not think it was a good idea for Russia to clumsily pressure Iran by holding up work on the Bushehr reactor and also going public with that tactic. Similar Russian intransigence was at the root of the USSR-PRC split in 1959. I agree that Iran wants a deterrent, and having its chain publically yanked by Russia will probably strengthen their resolve.