Iran Is Scaring Off Its Friends, Too
Even Tehran’s sympathizers in Europe and Asia are leery of its latest shifts in policy.
This week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded to the Trump administration’s ratcheting up military and economic pressure on his country by announcing that it would resume parts of its nuclear program. This partial rejection of the 2015 nuclear deal has been widely interpreted as a cry for help by Iran to the agreement’s remaining supporters to diplomatically isolate the United States and circumvent its sanctions to ensure Iranian oil and goods can still be sold internationally.
Tehran’s calculation, however, increasingly seems catastrophic. Rather than strengthening its relationships with other international powers, Iran’s recent behavior is undermining those countries’ faith in the Iranian government and their commitments to the Iranian economy.
Iran perhaps understood that its new approach would not effectively persuade the European signatories of the deal—the European Union, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Iran threatened to resume nuclear activities after a 60-day deadline unless EU countries found a way of circumventing U.S. sanctions and resuming normal trading relations. European companies, however, are more deeply entrenched in U.S. business than in Iran’s, and the EU’s new trade finance system, known as INSTEX, has been designed to only facilitate humanitarian trade.
Europe’s strategy had been to keep Iran in compliance with the deal at least until the next U.S. presidential election in 2020, when President Donald Trump might be replaced by someone whom Europe and the Iranians could trust again to uphold Washington’s end of the bargain. But Iran has spoiled that wait-and-see approach with its 60-day deadline, effectively undermining Europe as a potential ally. Still, Tehran likely did this intentionally, knowing full well that the EU would never openly defy U.S. policy.
Iran’s goal was instead to rally greater support from its trading partners to the east, some of which are less closely aligned with the United States. Iran seems to want to create a new international alliance, one centered on rising Asian powers willing to confront, or at least ignore, a newly nationalist and aggressive United States. This new alliance would include China, which already buys large quantities of Iranian oil, as well as Russia and India. Iran’s foreign minister visited the capitals of the latter two countries in recent weeks.
But there’s good reason to believe that Iran has gotten ahead of itself. Judging from conversations with a top Indian diplomat and Russian and Chinese experts, these countries blame Trump and his hawkish team for the threat to the nuclear deal but are greatly concerned by Rouhani’s recent response and well aware of the implications of any expansion of Iran’s nuclear activities. Nuclear powers themselves, they have a vested interest in Iran not joining their exclusive club.
India is set to lose massively from America’s reversal of policy on Iran. It has been buying oil at rates substantially cheaper than the market rate and, having decided it is in no position to challenge the United States, will be forced to spend much more as it switches supplies to comply with renewed sanctions. India is currently going through elections and has not publicly announced its policy. However, if the incumbents return to power, they are likely to side with Trump. When the United States retracted the exemption given to India among other countries to continue to buy oil from Iran, Dharmendra Pradhan, India’s petroleum minister, tweeted that India had put in place a “robust plan” to procure adequate amounts of crude from other suppliers.
India does have other reasons, both economic and strategic, to maintain good relations with Iran even once it ceases to be an oil customer. For one, India is circumspect of China’s expanding footprint in the country and wants to contain Beijing. Perhaps its biggest strategic interest in Iran is its Chabahar Port, which could allow India to bypass archenemy Pakistan in trading with Afghanistan.
But, as one top diplomatic source said, its higher priority is to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. The very possibility of that makes India “very uncomfortable,” the diplomat said. When the United States “retracted the exemption [to allow India to continue buying oil], it was seen as a unilateral decision,” he said. “But now, if Iran reneges on the nuclear deal, moral support for Iran could quickly dissipate not just from India but from the many others in the world. Rouhani’s comments do not ameliorate Indian concerns but add to them.”
Russia, for its part, has supported Iran partly to counterbalance U.S. hegemony in global affairs. When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Moscow to hold talks with his Russian
counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, Russia made clear that it held the United States responsible for the cracks in the nuclear deal. Vladimir Ermakov, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms Control, said bluntly to the Russian press: “Washington is to blame.”
But one Russian expert, known in Moscow to be an authority on Iran’s nuclear program, suggests that the Kremlin’s views are more complex than its rhetoric suggests. Speaking to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity, he said the Russian government always had doubts about Iran’s assurances that it had no intentions to “go nuclear” militarily. “Iran has the nuclear know-how, and Moscow has never been too certain it will not build a bomb as Iran has repeatedly assured,” he said. “Now if, for whatever reasons such as [the United States] backing out, the JCPOA does not survive, Iran could, in time, rethink its plans. If that happens, Moscow will send Iran a stern message.” Nikolay Kozhanov, a senior research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, said Russia for now did not take Iran’s threats seriously. “It is Iran’s political culture to make veiled threats and subsequently climb down,” he said.
China, the other Eastern power that Iran is reliant on, has publicly taken a strongly pro-Iran stance. One source suggested that China was planning to increase oil purchases from Iran using the black market, buying oil direct through transfers at sea, using naval tricks such as reflagging and turning off tracker devices to “go dark.” According to experts, however, such trade would still leave Iran short by as much as two-thirds of previous sales. Shen Dingli, a leading Chinese voice on relations with the United States and a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, said China’s continuing to buy Iranian oil was partly intended to stop it “going rogue.” But Shen expressed the same concern as the Indian diplomat and the Russian expert over the mere possibility that Iran could end up possessed of enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. “Iran might not build a bomb, but it can enrich high levels of uranium and have everything in place to quickly build one,” he said. “We want to prevent that.”
He suggested that China could come up with innovative ideas, such as sending a large number of tourists to Iran to mitigate the American “aggression.” “We are a country of a billion-plus. We can send hordes of tourists,” he said. “If one tourist spends a hundred dollars, it adds up to a lot. There are no U.S. sanctions on tourism.” China neither wants to offend the United States nor does it really disagree on the core issue. “We are on the same page as the U.S. when it is about Iran not having a nuclear weapon, but our strategies are different,” he said. “If such pressure on Iran continues, it could become radical.”
Holly Dagres, an Iranian-American analyst, said maintaining the hypothetical possibility of acquiring a nuclear weapon was a well-thought-out Iranian strategy. The bomb is the Iranian government’s wild card, which it uses to indicate to the United States and the world that it is better to be in business with Tehran than to ostracize it. “Though Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapon, there is concern over whether they will pursue one—and it’s that unknowing that unsettles countries,” she said. “However, it’s to the advantage of the Iranian government. The possibility of having a nuclear weapon averts regime change, which is what the Trump administration wants. … Just like North Korea. But unlike North Korea, Iran doesn’t want to become an international pariah.”
Russia, China, and India understand Iran’s frustrations. They ultimately are in the same position as Europe, however: They don’t feel they can do enough to protect Iran’s economic interests in the face of U.S. sanctions without risking their own businesses, which they are unwilling to do. Their political sympathies for Iran are not enough to outweigh their economic interests. And with little ability to influence U.S. policy, all they can do is call on Iran to go the extra mile and keep the deal alive with the hope that one day it can be restored or renegotiated.
What they cannot accept is an Iran that seeks to break the international consensus against nuclear proliferation. It may not be ideal that Iran has the choice of either arousing international suspicion or working within parameters set by the United States. But that is what these other powers themselves feel they are forced to do, for better or worse.