Iran’s ‘chicken’ diplomacy

The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius has decided to inject himself into the recent policy debate over Iran’s new fuel-swap deal with Turkey. Ignatius is noted for having likened Iran’s negotiation style to the way drivers commute in Tehran — it’s aggressive, frantic, and busy.

In his recent article titled “A diplomatic game of chicken with Iran,” Ignatius is optimistic that the Chinese and Russians will sign on to a fourth round of UN sanctions. He writes:

What’s important about the unified U.N. stand is that it will force Iran back to the bargaining table if it wants to avoid growing diplomatic isolation from the world’s superpowers. Yes, Tehran can claim that it has support from two of the world’s rising nations, Turkey and Brazil, which it will tout as allies against the great satans of the Security Council. But realistically, the Iranians know that having lost Russia and China on sanctions, they are on shaky ground.

Implicit in this statement is a belief that the new regimen of sanctions will have actual teeth. History demonstrates (remember Saddam’s Iraq?) that it is notoriously difficult to ensure that multilateral sanctions operate to their desired effect. In his heart of hearts, Ignatius knows this reality. If these new sanctions are to be truly ‘crippling,’ they will have to target Iran’s finance and energy sectors. With robust energy needs and cozy trading relationships with Tehran, Russia and China are unlikely to support sanctions that would directly affect their own economies.

Ignatius ends by arguing:

When it came to the crunch this time, Russia and China refused to be enablers for Tehran. By endorsing U.N. sanctions, they stood with the nations that want to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, as lay people (yes, journalists too), we have no way of getting inside the Russian and Chinese delegations at the UN. If history is any guide, both countries are hesitantly agreeing to these new sanctions to save diplomatic face. When it comes to crunch time, however, the Russians and Chinese will be too hungry for energy and a good trading partner. Why would they choose to give all that up for a pat on the back from the US or Europe?

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