By Betül Buke Karaçin
As Iran struggles to break out of its siege by the West, it is also trying to improve its relationships with strong countries on the economic and political front. At the same time, Tehran can also be seen attempting to find supporters in the international arena and thus check the pressure coming from the West.
Iran is a key actor in the Middle East and its relations with the West are in permanent turmoil. From the day the late Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed the U.S. to be the “Great Satan” tothe present, U.S.-Iranian relations have been based on mutual distrust. The mutual distrust has climaxed with the confrontation between the determined attitudes of the U.S., which does not want to see a Middle East in which Iran has nuclear weapons, and that of the Ahmadinejad administration.
The West wants to bring Iran to its knees and has not shrunk from playing the card of embargos and sanctions. This adventure for Iran first began in 1996 with the beginning of restrictions on capital investment, infrastructure, technology transfers and trade during the administration of President Clinton. In 2010, the U.S. resolved to tighten sanctions further and international pressure on Iran was substantially increased. The decision to introduce these sanctions was aimed at obstructing the development of nuclear weapons by Iran and stopping its support for terrorist activities.
The sanctions just referred to have brought the development of the energy sector to a standstill in a country where 80% of exports depend on petroleum products. Iran has been exposed to five waves of sanctions since 1996, each of them tougher than the one before, so now amid the presently prevailing conditions, it is struggling to break the vicious circle.
Iran’s Struggle to End its Isolation
Since the resolutions on sanctions were made, the international community has accelerated its policies to isolate Iran. Tehran has taken advantage of the West’s policies toward it, thus maintaining its popularity at home and also broadening its sphere of influence regionally.Western sanctions have had a constricting effect on the Ahmadinejad administration’s area for manoeuvre internationally. It is not just that the sanctions have cost Iran about $60 billion; they have already had a considerable psychological effect on Iran. During the Afghan and Iraq wars, Iran figured in the list of the “axis of evil” and “rogue states,”and consequently a period of even greater insecurity has got under way. The U.S. has stepped up its presence in a part of the world where instability holds sway and this has given Tehran an even greater feeling of being under siege. Led by the U.S., other international powers have widened their sanction measures and are trying to shrink the circle of those unfriendly to them, while Tehran tries to seek out new corridors which will enable it to breathe.
For the Ahmadinejad administration, one solution has been to develop limited capacity regional cooperation. Tehran has sped up its diplomatic offensives and between 2007 and 2011 signed preliminary agreements offering similar arrangements for trade and energy to 25 other countries, thus trying to project the image of a country which offered great opportunities to others. Iran plans to invest $200 billion in the energy industry by 2015, and the agreements indicate it is stepping up work on infrastructure such as developing sites and constructing pipelines and refineries.
But these preliminary agreements, signedwith high hopes, have mostly failed to make any substantial progress. The Ahmadinejad administration aims to break out of itsinternational isolation with a pragmatic approach, but because it has not favored conditions which would bring gains for both sides, most of these agreements have remained on the shelf. Tehran has generally not bothered with legal restrictions in making these preliminary agreements and uses this situation as a pretext regarding more advanced agreements. Indeed one might say that Iran was less concerned with utilizing its resources in an effective manner than with getting diplomatic backing and trying to overcome its security syndrome. Tehran’s conduct in this regard will in the longer term have a negative effect on the country’s reliability image. A goodwill agreement signed with Turkey regarding the South Pars area in 2007 provides a good illustration of this.
Talks took place at the technical level but they failed to come to a conclusion because of various restrictive conditions in the Iranian Constitution. In 2010, it was finally announced officially that the cooperation agreement between Turkey and Iran had gotten nowhere.
Another side of the problem is the fact that despite agreements made years ago with Iran’s neighbors—India, Pakistan, Turkey, and Armenia—there has been no progress whatsoever. In particular, there is the case of the “Peace Pipeline” project which was to carry Iranian crude to India via Pakistan and got under way with high hopes. But, though the project has an important bearing on the stability of the region, it got stuck at the planning stage.
When all these cases are studied closely,all Tehran’s intended partners also acted timidly. Pressure from the U.S., the fear of being branded a supporter of Iran in the international community and the obscurity of what would happen to these agreements in the future are some of the factors which have driven the whole process into a cul-de-sac.
Iran Opening to the East
President Ahmadinejad aims fundamentally totighten links with those countries from whichhe can expect political support, and so is trying to rapidly reach agreements with those regional powers which enjoy influence at the U.N. So we observe Iran focusing on Russia and China, both permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, and Brazil and Venezuela, both of which support its nuclear program. Brazil abstained during the vote on Iran in 2009 at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Venezuela actually opposed the resolution and voted in favor of Iran.
Since 2001, Iran has signed nearly 180 agreements with Venezuela worth around $20 billion and has attempted to move into different areas in its relations with Latin America. In a similar fashion, bilateral relations with Turkey have expandedfollowing supportive statements about Iran made by Turkey during its time as a temporary member of the U.N. Security Council and its veto, together with Brazil’s, of the resolution on sanctions.
As Tehran becomes politically more distant from the Western world, it flirts with Moscow. Moscow stands by Iran: It brushed aside international pressure to help Iran build the Bushehr Nuclear Plant and construct the first Iranian satellite, Sina-1. Even though it frequently causes tensions in relations between the U.S. and Russia, Russia sells weapons to Iran, thusgiving significant assistance to its military modernization. Moscow disregards sanction resolutions and in ten years has sold weaponry worth around $5 billion to Tehran.
However, Iran wants to avoid becoming solely dependent on Russia and has simultaneously taken steps to develop relations with China. China is its largest trading partner, and between 2003 and 2008 the Iranian government organized 80 top-level official visits with the Chinese and has succeeded in turning the discussions to its advantage. Beijing has managed to take advantage of the vacuum caused in Iran by the departure of Western companies, and in 2009 alone Beijing signed operating agreements in eight different fields. A $40 billion investment has made it Iran’s main partner in the energy industry. More than 100 Chinese companies are today building bridges, dams, railways and a metro system in Iran.
In conclusion, through its struggle with the U.S., described in Iran as “the Great Satan,”Iran has been condemned to international isolation. From the 1990s to the present, Iran has been under political, economic and psychological siege bythe West and has developed a reflexive response of seeking links with neighboring countries to try and break out of this encirclement. Tehran seeks to kill two birds with one stone as it tries to expandits relations with countries which are economically and politically strong, also seeking to increase its existing economic capacity. But beyond all that, Tehran seeks to find sympathizers in the international arena in order to halt the pressure on it from the West. In doing so,Tehran tries to send the message that it is still strong to the West and get the backing of countries like China and Russia, and so continue on its way. But this process is weakened by its habit of taking aone-sided advantage of its allies and it would appear that this will continue to damage the image of Iran’s trustworthiness.
Betül Buke Karaçin, USAK
This article was first published in USAK ANALIST Journal.