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Why Iran Won’t Budge

TEL AVIV – No one really believed that the latest round of international negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program would produce a breakthrough. So it was no surprise that itdid not, despite the concessions that were made at the meeting in Kazakhstan by the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus Germany). America’s belief that a harsh sanctions regime could coax Iran into a deal has proved – at least so far – to be unrealistic.

Despite being isolated and ostracized, Iran has managed to gain some strategic breathing room with the help of countries like China, Russia, India, Syria, and Venezuela, allowing it to resist Western pressure. More important, even though the severe sanctions regime led by the United States is bound to be imperfect – it only hardens further Iran’s resistance to “America’s designs.”

To be sure, Iran’s alliances are vulnerable to erosion and, in the case of two staunch allies, Syria and Venezuela, to outright collapse. The end of Chavismo would threaten Iran’s vast interests in Venezuela and its considerable presence in the Andes, while the fall of the Assad dynasty would be a devastating blow to Iran’s regional strategy.

Even so, Russia and China continue to take a much more lenient approach to Iran than Europe and the US have since the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report in November 2011 described in detail Iran’s activities in pursuing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. While the Western powers have embraced ever-harsher sanctions, Russia and China view Iran as a tool in their global competition with the US.

China’s Iranian interests boil down to economics. Bilateral trade stands at about $40 billion a year, and China is not only Iran’s largest customer for crude oil, but also a colossal investor – somewhere between $40 billion and $100 billion – in Iran’s energy and transport sectors. True, China cannot entirely overlook US pressure and the staunch opposition of its top oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, to Iran’s nuclear program. But, while China has supported the mandatory sanctions set by the United Nations Security Council, it has rejected the West’s unilateral measures.

With bilateral trade worth only about $5 billion annually, Russia’s economic interests in Iran are fairly modest. But it fears Iran’s ability to cause trouble, particularly by stirring up unrest among Russia’s Muslim citizens. Moreover, America has refused to pay the Kremlin’s high price – curtailment of congressional human-rights legislation, repeal of Cold-War-era restrictions on Russian-US trade, and abandonment of plans for ballistic missile defense in Europe – for Russian support on Iran (or, for that matter, on any other trouble spot, such as Syria).

The problem with the US drive to have key stakeholders join its anti-Iran crusade is that some of them live in neighborhoods where Iran is an important factor. India is a case in point. India is certainly alarmed at the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons, not to mention its concern at the possible effects of Iran’s Islamist fundamentalism on Kashmiri Muslims. But its $14 billion in annual bilateral trade, and dependence on Iranian oil – many of India’s refineries have been built to run solely on Iranian crude – are key strategic considerations.

Moreover, India needs Iran as an alternative trade and energy conduit to Central Asia, bypassing rival Pakistan, and also as a hedge against an uncertain future in Afghanistan after America’s withdrawal in 2014. As a result, India’s policy mirrors China’s: it has aligned itself with mandatory international sanctions, but has abjured voluntary Western financial restrictions. The best one can expect is that India continues to act at the margin – for example, by reducing dependence on Iranian oil while increasing imports from Saudi Arabia, already its largest supplier of crude.

The equivocal nature of Iran’s alliances, however, can be a mixed blessing. Yes, a harsh sanctions regime might still gain additional supporters, but an Iran with its back against the wall would probably be even more obstinate in its nuclear drive. After all, Iraq was an easy target in the first Gulf War precisely because it had abandoned its nuclear program, and possessed no weapons of mass destruction. Similarly, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi exposed himself to a NATO onslaught by relinquishing his WMDs.

By contrast, North Korea shows that defiance, rather than accommodation, is a strategy that works. That is why Syria, with North Korean assistance, tried to develop a nuclear program (presumably destroyed by Israel’s officially unacknowledged “Operation Orchard” in 2007).Iran will not consider abandoning its nuclear insurance policy unless a broad agenda is agreed upon that addresses Iran’s concerns as a regional power and secures the immunity of its Islamist regime from American actions.

Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” could be applied to America’s Iran policy. The diplomacy of sanctions, ostracism, and brinkmanship has failed resoundingly. As Iran’s uranium-enrichment and other weapons-development activities continue unabated, the US needs to make a break with the old rules of engagement.

Read more from our "Iran’s New Man" Focal Point.