The Iran game is heating up

As sanctions approach, much depends on an unknown: Russia

By Tim Marshall, December 17, 2009

It is a tangled web that the world powers are weaving. Some are manoeuvring to ensnare the Iranians in a sanctions trap, others are constructing Tehran’s escape route. The Russians are doing both, simultaneously.

First, the trap. The EU, USA, Israel and others are compiling evidence to make the case that Iran is building a nuclear weapon and must be stopped through “crippling sanctions”. This is intended to lead to a UN Resolution early in 2010. It could be a Chapter 7 Resolution authorising force if it is not obeyed. This week’s story in The Times, that Iran has been testing a trigger designed only to ignite a nuclear bomb, will form part of the argument.

The British and French are trying to stiffen the resolve of other EU members, and all parties are studying the make up of the 15-member UN Security Council in January to see who can apply pressure where. The French, Americans and British are talking in private about the sort of language to put in a draft resolution.

The Israelis have been busy with the Russians in a series of meetings. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman met his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Athens on December 2. He then went on to Moscow to see Prime Minister Putin, invited him to Israel next year and received an acceptance.

Prime Minister Netanyahu came down with a heavy cold meaning he couldn’t travel to Berlin, but somehow he dragged himself from his sick bed to meet the Russian National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev. The Israelis want Russian backing for sanctions and, more importantly, a promise not to sell Iran the S-300 air defence system which could knock the IAF out of the skies.

The Russians may recently have gone cold on Tehran, but they are hedging their bets

The Russians may have recently gone cold on Tehran, but are hedging their bets. They may end up backing sanctions, or might scupper the plan by using their veto at the Security Council, and then use their former Soviet surrogate, Turkmenistan, to undermine any Plan B the Americans might have.

Failure at the UN would leave the US having to cobble together a coalition on sanctions. That would inevitably leave gaping holes and Moscow would fill them with oil and gas and deliver them to Iran through the back door — Turkmenistan.

So the Iranians, although worried, are not sweating yet. They still hope to keep the Russians on side. And, just in case, their diplomatic web has spread across the globe. Iran spent the year cosying up to the Chinese, who now supply a third of Iran’s fuel needs. But. President Ahmadinejad’s new best friend is the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

His recent tour of South America produced an agreement that, in the event of sanctions, Mr Chavez will provide Iran with 20,000 barrels of oil a day. Delivering it would be a problem, but its an indication of how Tehran is preparing for what’s coming.

Even as these two webs are being spun, two sets of military action are being studied. The Israelis never had any faith in “crippling sanctions”, but gave the Americans the diplomatic time and space they needed. Because that time is almost up, Israel is looking at how it could damage the Iranian nuclear programme — with or without American help.

Iran is looking to head that off. They will make it as difficult as possible for Israel to cause real damage and, if things heat up next year, we will hear the threat of mining the Strait of Hormuz — the world’s oil choke point.

This is Iran’s other “nuclear option”. Closing the strait to tankers would double, perhaps triple, oil prices in a matter of days, plunging the developed world back into recession.

All these factors, and more, are now keeping diplomats, business people and military planners, awake at night.

Last updated: 11:13am, December 17 2009