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The Race for Iran


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 (see, here), measures that might affect the fundamental stability of Iran’s political order (see, here), or specific measures that would get in the way of Russian economic and security interests (see here).  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 had 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 and Hillary Mann Leverett



  1. James Canning says:

    Dan Cooper,

    One can turn Kissinger’s dictum around, and say that being Israel’s ally is more dangerous than being an enemy. What is the cost of the idiotic Iraq War, that Israel’s “supporters” in the US inflicted on America? $1 trillion?

  2. James Canning says:

    Dan Cooper,

    The US said nothing when the elections were “arranged” the first time around, so that Karzai won. So why all the noise the second time around?

    Karzai recognizes that substanial help from Iran is necessary, if stability is to be achieved in Afghanistan. Foolish American policy makers, including Hillary Clinton, refuse to acknowledge this salient fact.

  3. Aquarius says:

    I was told by some people at the UN last Monday that the Iran sanctions would not be on the agenda for April. Looks like it will be June at the earliest.

  4. Dan Cooper says:

    Henry Kissinger once observed that it was more dangerous being America’s ally than its enemy.

    The latest example: the U.S.-installed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, who is in serious hot water with his really angry patrons in Washington.

    The Obama administration is blaming the largely powerless Karzai, a former CIA “asset,” for America’s failure to defeat the Taliban. Washington accused Karzai of rigging last year’s elections. True enough, but the U.S. pre-rigged the Afghan elections by excluding all parties opposed to western occupation.

    Washington, which supports dictators and phoney elections across the Muslim world, had the chutzpah to blast Karzai for corruption and rigging votes. This while the Pentagon was engineering a full military takeover of Pakistan.

    The Obama administration made no secret it wanted to replace Karzai. You could almost hear Washington crying, “Bad puppet! Bad puppet!”

    Karzai fired back, accusing the U.S. of vote-rigging. He has repeatedly demanded the U.S. military stop killing so many Afghan civilians.

    Next, Karzai dropped a bombshell, asserting the U.S. was occupying Afghanistan to dominate the energy-rich Caspian Basin region, not because of the non-existent al-Qaida or Taliban. Karzai said Taliban was “resisting western occupation.” The U.S. will soon have 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, plus 40,000 dragooned NATO troops.

    Karzai even half-jested he might join Taliban.

    Washington had apoplexy. A vicious propaganda campaign was unleashed against Karzai. The New York Times, a mouthpiece for the Obama administration and ardent backer of the Afghan war, all but called for the overthrow of Karzai and his replacement by a compliant general.

    An American self-promoter, Peter Galbraith, who had been fired from his job with the UN in Kabul, was trotted out to tell media that Karzai might be both a drug addict and crazy.

    Behind this ugly, if also comical, spat lay a growing divergence between Afghans and Washington. After 31 years of conflict, nearly three million dead, millions more refugees and frightful poverty, Afghans yearn for peace.

    For the past two years, Karzai and his warlord allies have been holding peace talks with the Taliban in Saudi Arabia.

    Karzai knows the only way to end the Afghan conflict is to enfranchise the nation’s Pashtun majority and its fighting arm, the Taliban. Political compromise with the Taliban is the only – and inevitable – solution.

    But the Obama administration, misadvised by Washington neocons and other hardliners, is determined to “win” a military victory in Afghanistan (whatever that means) to save face as a great power and impose a settlement that leaves it in control of strategic Afghanistan.

    Accordingly, the U.S. thwarted Karzai’s peace talks by getting Pakistan, currently the recipient of $7 billion in U.S. cash, to arrest senior Taliban leaders sheltering there who had been part of the ongoing peace negotiations with Kabul.

    It was Karzai’s turn to be enraged. So he began openly defying his American patrons and adopting an independent position. The puppet was cutting his strings.

    Karzai’s newfound boldness was due to the fact that both India and China are eager to replace U.S./British/NATO domination of Afghanistan. India is pouring money, arms and agents into Afghanistan and training government forces. China, more discreetly, is moving in to exploit Afghanistan’s recently discovered mineral wealth that, says Karzai, is worth $1 trillion, according to a U.S. government geological survey.

    Russia, still smarting from its 1980s defeat in Afghanistan, is watching America’s travails there with rich enjoyment and not a little yearning for revenge. Moscow has its own ambitions in Afghanistan.

    This column has long suggested Karzai’s best option is to distance himself from American tutelage and demand the withdrawal of all foreign occupation forces.

    Risky business, of course. Remember Kissinger’s warning. Karzai could end up dead. But he could also become a national hero and best candidate to lead an independent Afghanistan that all ethnic groups could accept.

    Alas, the U.S. keeps making the same mistake of seeking obedient clients rather than democratic allies who are genuinely popular and legitimate.

    US Puppet Cuts His Strings

    Thwarted by the American government on compromise with Taliban, Karzai has begun openly defying his patrons

    By Eric Margolis

  5. James Canning says:


    My understanding is that the US not only is failing to send a delegation to Tehran for the conference, foolish American politicians and diplomats have been pressuring other countries not to attend! Sheerest arrogance and stupidity. Iran will attend the May confence in New York (on IAEA/NPT).

  6. Sakineh Bagoom says:


    Iran was not invited because that would legitimate the regime and its nuclear program. Remember, these conferences are designed for pomp and to make statements. They are also designed, to convict countries in absentia. Not much else will come of it. US is not really interested in hearing what Iran has to say on this or its interests. If it did, why all the breathlessness and hyperbole?

  7. Fiorangela Leone says:

    Why wasn’t Iran invited to the Global Nuclear Conference?

    Will the US send a representative to the Iranian Nuclear conference next week?

  8. James Canning says:

    It is worth remembering that France helped Israel move forward with its nuclear weapons program, against opposition from the US (which wanted no Israeli nukes), because Israel was working with France regarding France’s war in Algeria.

    Jacques Chirac fought in the Algerian war, and he told Tony Blair, before the idiotic US/UK invasion of Iraq, that a Shia government in Baghdad “should not be confused with a democracy”.

  9. James Canning says:


    Thanks. Quite interesting, and perhaps Obama will exploit the numerous ways available to him, to pressure Israel to stop all construction in the illegal colonies in the West Bank.

  10. Fiorangela Leone says:

    thanks for the link, Kathleen. linked to it is a Politico version that denies that visas are being denied.

    Interesting that one Israeli response said, “We didn’t steal anything….”
    A case is just getting off the ground in Western Pennsylvania http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/valleynewsdispatch/s_668192.html
    concerning nuclear contamination of a site that was alleged to have been a location from which Israel stole nuclear material some 30+ years ago, in the first stages of Israel’s (alleged) nuclear development program.

  11. kooshy says:


    But the sanctions are costly for the US. It has to exert substantial energy in getting even mild sanctions approved. It has to offer concessions to Russia and China and sour its relations with these major powers. Same with Brazil and Turkey. What is worse is that even with all that effort it is still not clear they will get even mild sanctions. It is embarrassing for US soft power to be seen working so hard for something and not get it



  12. Kathleen says:

    James had linked this article yesterday about Israel scientist from Dimona being denied visas

  13. James Canning says:


    Given that Iran is trying to prevent a return to power of the Taliban in Kabul, more Iranian influence in Afghanistan is a good thing. How in blazes can it make sense for the US to spend $1.1 millions per year, per soldier, to attempt to accomplish what Iran is trying to do – – at NO COST TO THE AMERICAN TAXPAYER.

  14. Fiorangela Leone says:

    Is Israel having reactor troubles at Dimona?

    In a conversation on Mondoweiss. com where the topic is Netanyahu’s withdrawal from DC nuclear summit, mention was made of the fact that the Obama administration is denying entry visas to Israeli nuclear scientists.

    In response to that extraordinary turn of events — that the US is constricting once-unlimited Israeli access to US agencies and institutions– one commenter posted this very intriguing comment, referring to yet another (admittedly obscure) blog/comment last January 2010: here’s the comment and link to the January comment that was quoted yesterday on Mondoweiss:


    It seems that the Israeli nuke toys are in decline, as in they messed up their Dimona reprocessing with an ‘accident’ that has put them in gridlock as far as reprocessing for their nuke warheads. That appears to be their main impetus behind the Israelis shuddering regarding Iran having even a modicum of nuclear ability (civilian power or otherwise) as the Iranians at a point will ‘get ahead’ of the Israelis and then the Israel bully will no longer have a billy club with which to threaten others (including our U.S.).

    Israel therefore sets its sites on stealing our U.S. nuke tech and other U.S. advancements to try and negate their Dimona ‘accident’. D.C. would be well advised to kick out and close off all Israeli access to ‘all’ U.S. nuke tech R&D that is going on.
    That’s my personal recommendation anyways.

    Posted by: J | 31 January 2010 at 01:24 PM”

    link: Israeli spies in the US

  15. Lysander says:

    As always, Cyrus makes an excellent point. But in my view, sanctions are simply the default strategy adopted because there’s nothing else they can do. In the minds of the neocons, sanctions are the prelude to their hoped for war. But just because such a strategy worked on Iraq doesn’t mean it will work on Iran. Sanctions and UNSC resolutions are unlikely to lead to a US attack. The main problem for the US in attacking Iran is not building international or domestic consensus. It is absorbing Iran’s retaliation. That is why there has been a lot of talk about war for 8 years…but no actual war.

    Iran has made substantial strides in the region. Influence in Iraq and Afghanistan. A nuclear program, a space and ballistic missile program. Sanctions are the only available means to limit or at least slow down Iran’s progress.

    But the sanctions are costly for the US. It has to exert substantial energy in getting even mild sanctions approved. It has to offer concessions to Russia and China and sour its relations with these major powers. Same with Brazil and Turkey. What is worse is that even with all that effort it is still not clear they will get even mild sanctions. It is embarrassing for US soft power to be seen working so hard for something and not get it.

  16. James Canning says:


    I like to focus attention on Dennis Ross, who runs the Iran desk at the National Security Council and who is known to push hard for “support” for whatever Israeli government is in power, even if that government is injuring the security interests of the US. Ross said during the campaign, when he advised Hlllary Clinton, that the game plan would be to pretend to engage with Iran, to set up sanctions and maybe more down the road. The Iranians obviously pay attention to open duplicity of this sort.

  17. Dan Cooper says:

    Iran unveils improved centrifuges

    “Our supreme leader, our leaders, our president have all indicated over and over again that we are not after nuclear bombs.”


  18. Kathleen says:

    James go read that article at the Pajamas media that I posted above.

  19. Tony says:

    Cyrus, you read my mind. I was about to post the same exact thing. In one to three years the US will say Iran has not complied with UN resolutions so now it’s time to take the next step – WAR! As someone else on this site mentioned, Obama was never serious about negotiations, only the appearance of being reasonable. Even if Obama was serious, AIPAC would never allow it.

  20. James Canning says:


    Excellent points. One might add that “boxing Obama in”, in order to prevent rapprochement, is the game plan of the foolish promoters of the “Greater Israel” build on a permanent suppression of the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinians.

  21. James Canning says:

    Joe Biden should be wise enough to recognize that suggestions from the US that “regime change” would be welcome, are the absolutely wrong way forward in dealing with Iran. Should US national security officials opnely discuss the need for “regime change” in Israel?

  22. Anthony says:

    two russia oil companies have already cut off ties with Iran, the latest being:


  23. Cyrus says:

    Doesn’t matter what sort of sanctions the Russians agree upon. The proponents of sanctions on Iran don’t really care whether the sanctions themselves are effective or not, or what sort of sanctions the Russians will agree to, etc. Any sanctions will do because long as the US is sanctioning Iran, the US is not really engaging or talking to Iran, which is the worst nightmare of the sanctions proponents. To them, sanctions are to serve merely as an incremental step towards a US attack on Iran, which is their real and ultimate goal. This is part of a step-by-step process of boxing the Obama administration into a policy that will end in a war on Iran. As Obama follows down this path, it becomes politically harder and harder for him to ever turn around and start to really negotiate with Iran. He’s letting himself getted boxed-in.