Rhein on Energy and Climate

Iran shows increasing signs of its determination to develop a military nuclear capacity and to become the leading power in the Middle East.

This is no rejoicing prospect for any country on earth, big or small, distant or close. It is bound to make the Middle East an even more instable region, challenging Israel’s military superiority and Saudi-Arabia’s role as the leading Muslim country in the region and triggering a dangerous spiral of military build-up.

The chances for the international community to persuade Iran to abandon its programmes of uranium enrichment and missile development look dim.

Diplomatic talks have been ongoing between Iran on the one hand, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany on the other, for several years, without producing any visible results.

Iran remains stubborn in its resolution to go ahead. The nuclear programme has become a successful vehicle for the regime to rally the Iranian population behind it.

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A pre-emptive military strike against the nuclear sites is risky. It might at best delay the process, but is bound to provoke retaliation and military confrontation.

Therefore all hopes are pinned on stricter UN-sanctions against trade and financial transactions with Iran. Iran is heavily dependent on trade in goods and services. It also needs substantial foreign investment for developing its future oil and gas fields and expanding its refinery capacity.

But there is little chance for the UN Security Council to adopt a package of tough sanctions against Iran. China is unlikely to give its blessing. It puts its direct economic interests beyond the uncertain possibility of sanctions preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Iran is China’s major oil supplier, and it sees a welcome opportunity to strengthen its economic links by opposing sanctions. That strategy is paying dividends: Chinese companies are rapidly replacing their Western competitors from the Iranian market.

Even if China were to agree to stricter sanctions, trade and financial operations would pass through alternative channels like Turkey, Dubai, Azerbeijan and Turkmenistan. Iran would have to tighten its belt, but the regime might even benefit from sanctions by rallying its people against “external enemies”. It could continue its nuclear build-up though at a slower pace.

There is probably only one way to force Iran to abandon its nuclear programme: a complete embargo on Iranian crude oil exports.

But can any one believe one instant the international community being capable of such an act, which would require the deployment of a fleet in the Straight of Hormuz and carry the risk of a military confrontation with Iran.

This leads to three sobering conclusions:

China’s active support is indispensable for solving any major international problem in the 21st century.

Globalisation makes any form of sanctions against individual countries an increasingly blunt instrument. Diplomats should better forget about them.

The world must rapidly go ahead to become nuclear-free, as President Obama has called for. As long as some countries enjoy “nuclear privileges”, Iran has a point for not being been excluded.

Brussels, 01.10.09 Eberhard Rhein

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