Russia’s Limits on Iran Sanctions

Obama Administration officials have been touting for some time that they have Russia “on board” for a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue.  We, of course, have been arguing for months that, while Russia would probably end up supporting a new sanctions resolution, Moscow would not support broad-based sanctions against major sectors of Iran’s economy, measures that might affect the fundamental stability of Iran’s political order, or specific measures that would get in the way of Russian economic and security interests.  Instead, Russian officials have insisted that any new sanctions against Iran should — like previous sanctions authorized by the Security Council — be focused on individuals and entities directly involved in the Islamic Republic’s nuclear and missile programs.  In the face of these realities, the Obama Administration has already backed down from some of the tougher measures it originally sought to have included in a potential new resolution, to maximize its chances for winning Russian support (and Chinese acquiescence, at least) in the Council.

Yesterday, however, the Russians almost literally drew a picture for the Administration regarding the limits of Moscow’s willingness to support new sanctions against Iran.  On the sidelines of the signing ceremony for the new U.S.-Russian strategic arms reduction treaty in Prague, President Obama and his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, held an 85-minute closed-door meeting; by all accounts, Iran was a major topic of discussion.  At a joint press conference with President Obama following their 85-minute meeting, President Medvedev outlined his government’s approach to Iran sanctions.

Let’s ask ourselves a question: What do we need sanctions for?  Do we need them to enjoy the very fact of reprising — imposing reprisals against another state, or is the objective another one? . . . We need sanctions in order to prompt one or another individual or state to behave properly, behave within the framework of international law, while complying with the obligations assumed. . . .  This has been the position of the Russian Federation from the very outset.  If we are to speak about sanctions, although they are not always successful, those sanctions should be smart sanctions that are capable of producing proper behavior on the part of relevant sides.

And what sort of sanctions should we need?  Today we have . . . [in] a very open-minded, frank, and straightforward manner discussed what can be done and what cannot be done.  And let me put it straightforward: I have outlined our limits for such sanctions, our understanding of these sanctions, and I said that in making decisions like that, I . . . will proceed from two premises.  First, we need to prompt Iran to behave properly; and secondly, last but not least, aim to maintain the national interests of our countries.

In his private meeting with President Obama, President Medvedev had apparently been even more explicit regarding Russia’s limits for potential new sanctions against Iran, and the Russian “national interests” which Moscow is determined to protect.  According to the Washington Post‘s Michael Shear and Glenn Kessler,

Officials from both countries said later that Medvedev privately offered a broad range of objections to sanctions, including actions that would create economic hardship inside Iran, foment financial chaos in the government or lead to regime change.

By way of further clarification, Russia’s deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov — who represents Russia in the P-5+1 process — told reporters that Moscow would not support an embargo on deliveries of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran, arguing that such a step would “mean a slap, a blow, a huge shock for the whole society.”

As we wrote last month, the Obama Administration will almost certainly have to water down the current draft sanctions resolution even more to win Russia’s endorsement of a final text in the Security Council.  Moscow, for example, has consistently insisted that proposals for an international arms embargo against the Islamic Republic be excluded from previous sanctions resolution.  Furthermore, a “senior European diplomat” tells Shear and Kessler that “Russia opposes any language that targets companies or individuals not involved in the nuclear or missile programs.”  This, too, is consistent with Russia’s past positions and our information about Moscow’s current stance.  As we noted last month,

[it is unlikely that either Russia or China] would ultimately endorse a blanket prohibition on dealing with the Revolutionary Guard and U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey’s ‘hit list’ of Revolutionary Guard affiliates and asset holdings — including in the Islamic Republic’s all-important energy sector.

In the wake of Medvedev’s remarks, the Administration is also scrambling to clarify that it does not see sanctions as a tool for promoting “regime change” in Iran, with deputy national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes telling reporters in Prague that “we have not set regime change as a goal of these sanctions.”  (This is a notable retreat from statements made by Vice President Biden and national security adviser Jim Jones in February that, as we noted at the time, linked new international sanctions to the possibility and desirability of regime change in Tehran.)

With regard to timing, the Obama Administration is now hedging as to whether it will be possible to get a new sanctions resolution through the Security Council this month, or whether Washington and its European partners will have to wait until June.  (May is considered out because Lebanon will hold the Security Council presidency then.)  White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters in Prague that reporters should not focus on whether President Obama’s comment that he wants new sanctions authorized this “spring” refers to a specific month, advising the media to stick simply with “spring.”

The sanctions (melo)drama is likely to intensify in coming days, with China’s President Hu, Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdoğan, and Brazil’s President Lula coming to Washington next week to take part in President Obama’s nuclear security summit.  (Interestingly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has decided not to attend.)

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 9 April 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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