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Last week the United States ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton had a message for Teheran: Take note of the Security Council's resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea.
Bolton had reason to be proud. He had piloted the passage of the resolution in record time. Nevertheless, his advice to Teheran will fall on deaf ears - and for a reason.
The resolution on North Korea was not placed under the famous Chapter Seven of the UN Charter that allows the use of military force. Worse still, the resolution forbids military action against Pyongyang, pending the passage of a second, and highly improbable, resolution. Even then, the resolution has been further weakened because China announced it opposed the provision under which North Korean ships could be searched for dual-use materiel.
The resolution on North Korea belongs to a new set of UN decisions that diplomats refer to as "half-pregnant." These, though impressive on paper, are subject to "ifs and buts" that render them useless in practice.
THE PROBLEM as always is that the five permanent members of the Security Council do not agree on the nature of the problem. China, and to some extent Russia, see North Korea as a misbehaving juvenile to be calmed down with a mixture of advice and threat. The United States, and to some extent Britain, see the North Korean regime as a dangerous and unpredictable criminal who, unless restrained by forceful action, could do a great deal of harm all around. (France, as always, tries to cultivate its exception by adopting a median position.)
To complicate matters further, Russia, China and France, are convinced that if North Korea ever tried to do really big mischief, the United States would always be on hand to deal with it. There is, therefore, no reason for Russia, China and France to appear as parties to an American "plot" to change the regime in Pyongyang. And, why should Russia, China and France help install a pro-American regime in North Korea?
With all that in mind, Bolton's advice to Iran, as already noted, is misplaced. When the text of the North Korean resolution was published, Teheran's reaction was a sigh of relief. Their response went something like this: if this is all the UN can do against a regime that admits having tested a nuclear device, there is little that it can do against the Iranian regime that swears it does not want the bomb.
Teheran is certain that China and Russia will prevent the adoption of even a "half-pregnant" resolution.
Here too, Russia and China are convinced that if the Islamic Republic did try big mischief the US would deal with it, and that, in the meantime, there is no reason why they should help install a pro-American regime in Teheran.
MANY IN Washington regard the Russian and Chinese attitudes as merely mercenary. But that is a partial reading of a complex reality.
China is trying to emerge as a major power while Russia is dreaming of a comeback. Both see the power game as played with no sentimental considerations. Russian and Chinese decision-makers are not hounded by lobbyists and opinion-makers with particular agendas and ideological preferences. They don't care if the North Korean or for that matter the Iranian regime are tough on their own folk.
They believe they have no business preaching human rights and multi-party elections to either the North Korean Stalinists or the Khomeinists. The Russian and Chinese approach to big power politics is a new version of what the British, in their heyday of empire, called benign neglect. Put simply, this means: We don't give a damn what the natives do among themselves or to each other as long as they do not threaten our interests.
And, as far as the Islamic Republic is concerned, both China and Russia have immense interests in the perpetuation of the Khomeinist regime. The duo are among Iran's top four business partners and account for almost 80 percent of the Islamic Republic's imports of military hardware. Without the Iranian market, some production lines in the Russian and Chinese hardware industries could become too costly to continue.
Separately, Iran has signed contracts with Russia and China to develop a range of missiles, armored vehicles and tactical aircraft. Russia is also committed to helping the Islamic Republic build 22 nuclear power plants by 2020, something that has given the moribund Russian nuclear industry a second life.
The Islamic Republic has signed contracts with China and Russia to the total value of $70 billion each.
With US and European universities closed to students from the Islamic Republic, China and Russia are becoming popular destinations for young Iranian scholars. In 1979 there were just 30 Iranians studying in China. This year they number 7,800. Almost twice as many are in Russia.
That China and Russia regard the Islamic Republic as a strategic partner was highlighted earlier this year when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to attend the summit of the Shanghai Group, whose principal task is fighting terrorism!
IN THE longer-term, China's relations with the Islamic Republic are more important than Teheran's ties to Moscow. There are several reasons for this. Iran harbors bitter memories of Russia as an enemy with which it fought at least four major wars, ending in huge losses of territory by the Iranians. Iran and Russia are also rivals for influence in Trans-Caucasia, the Caspian Basin and Central Asia. As an oil and gas producer, Russia has no need of Iran whereas China, ever thirstier for energy, looks to the Islamic Republic as a long-term source of supply.
According to some estimates, China imports 19% of its oil from Iran. Preliminary talks have also taken place for building a gas pipeline linking Iranian fields in the Persian Gulf to China via Pakistan. An old plan, drafted under the Shah in the 1970s and envisaging a massive Iranian presence in downstream activities in China, is being revived. The centerpiece of the plan is the creation of a strategic reserve of Iranian crude oil on Chinese soil. This is advantageous to both sides. The Chinese will have an emergency source of supply in case the US tries to cut their oil in a conflict over Taiwan. The Iranians would benefit by being able to produce more than their OPEC quota, and being able to supply their customers outside China in case the US tries to stop Iranian exports from the Strait of Hormuz.
So the truth is that any "half-pregnant" UN resolution aimed at Iran would only encourage Teheran in its defiance. Teheran would factor the whole thing in its overall strategy and, supported by China, Russia, and to some extent the European Union, might even intensify whatever it is doing.
In a sense, having no resolution is better than ending up with a "half pregnant" one. The absence of a resolution would have at least one advantage: it would keep Teheran guessing what might hit it next.