Iran's partners of choice are the US and Europe.
That statement may be hard to believe, given how much 'death to America' we've heard out of Tehran, but it's true. The new government in Iran wants improved relations with the West, but that trajectory is dependent on the success of the nuclear negotiations, resuming in Vienna today. If there is no deal and the thaw in relations is reversed, then Iran will be pushed into the arms of other all-too-willing partners like China and Russia.
With his visit to Asia, President Obama placed a premium on fostering friendships. In the Middle East, Iran is a potential friend worth fostering. It is a large, resource rich and potentially powerful partner in an unstable region. It is the largest country in the Middle East with the capacity to pursue a serious international agenda (as Egypt, its natural competition for that title, disappears down the rabbit hole of domestic political strife). Much of Iranian society is Western leaning. Today, those in charge believe that Iran will be better off if it has relations with the West. This is part of the reason why Iran continues to pursue nuclear negotiations rather than simply looking north and east for its international partners.
President Rouhani's version of liberalism and openness has been grafted onto the Islamic Republic, but whether it will take is dependent on the outcome of the nuclear talks. Rouhani has a mandate to resolve the nuclear issue, but he is facing significant opposition from domestic hardliners. A win buys him political capital and legitimacy for his more moderate policies. A strong, liberal and independent Iran will naturally pursue its own interests, but it will be more sympathetic to Western goals if it develops ties with the EU and the US. Iran could be coaxed into a role as part of the international community, not in opposition to it.
But if there is no deal, Rouhani will be discredited and hung out to dry by the Supreme Leader and other regime insiders.
The experiment with a liberal trajectory will be discarded, resulting in the return of a more closed regime and country. An absent deal would also increase the wedge with the West, and Iran will naturally turn to countries that are less choosy in their foreign relations, with the obvious contenders being China and Russia.
Iran has already increasingly turned to Asia to weather the impact of European and US sanctions. Despite efforts to coax Beijing away from Tehran, Washington has renewed its sanctions waivers for China as it continues to import oil from Iran. In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, in January 2014, Chinese purchases of crude oil boosted Iranian exports to 1.32 million barrels per day; 32% above the limit allowed by the November 2013 agreement with the P5+1.
Energy and trade are not the only areas where China and Iran are close. Last week, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan announced a desire for closer military cooperation with Iran during a four-day visit to Beijing by his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Dehqan. China and Iran's defence cooperation through Chinese sales of advanced defence technologies, and assistance with Iran's ballistic missile program, spans three decades. But this type of official meeting rarely occurs, and when it does it is rarely so public.
Meanwhile, Russia is offering Iran an oil-for-goods barter deal valued at approximately US$20 billion. Both countries are also negotiating a possible electricity-for-goods deal valued at about US$10 billion. All to the great dismay of the US, which insists that such deals could violate US sanctions and run counter the November 2013 nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran.
Although the P5+1 maintains that it is united in negotiations, it's clear that Russia and China are not towing the 'party' line.
Then again, Iran is openly suspicious of Russia and China. For example, after repeated delays in bringing the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant online, Tehran suspected that Moscow was dragging its feet and accused it of being unreliable. When news of a possible barter deal with Russia broke, Tehran refused to confirm or deny that the talks took place. Iran has drawn out the talks with Russia, indicating it is a back-up in case the nuclear negotiations fail.
Similar frustrations exist with China. In April, Iran cancelled a US$2.5 billion contract with the China National Petroleum Corporation for the development of the South Azadegan oil field after repeated delays in the project. Iranian officials have complained about the poor quality and high cost of Chinese equipment and services. These tensions provide the West with an opportunity to capitalise by remaining (ironically) Tehran's partners of choice.
The nuclear negotiations beginning today represent the last great chance to capitalise on that opportunity. Too many past attempts at resolving this issue have failed. There will be no triumph for moderation if President Rouhani returns home without a deal. Instead, we are likely to see a return to the old, hardened Islamic Republic.
In addition, we are faced with an emboldened Russia following the successful annexation of Crimea, and a China with a growing capacity to reach beyond its borders, particularly in forging economic partnerships. Both are keen to develop friendships in the Middle East — and who better than a market of 75 million people with a relatively stable government?
It is imperative that the US and Europe explore all avenues for overlap in the nuclear talks. A deal must be reached, not only because of the nuclear issue, but also because of the effect it is likely to have on Iran's future course. We won't get a good deal by Western standards, but if the West can constrain Iran's nuclear program, reinforce liberalism in Iran, provide political capital for the new regime, and perhaps even lead to the beginning of new era where the West will have a greater influence on Iranian foreign policy decisions, it will avoid pushing Tehran into the arms of the West's natural competitors.
Conversely, no deal will result in an Iran with no incentives to do what the West wants, an unconstrained nuclear program, and driven towards Russia and China. For once, the answer is clear.
Photo by Flickr user European External Action Service..