One week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is wagging his finger at the world from the podium at the UN, stating that Iran will never relinquish the right to pursue a nuclear program. The next week, as if all the previous Iranian proclamations on the subject for many years had been mere posturing by the Iranian team in Geneva, he suddenly says Iran is willing to send the majority of its known enriched uranium stockpile to Russia for future reprocessing.
Which Iran is the world supposed to believe?
The Iran that could for the first time be taking a step back from the precipice, or the Iran that has consistently been intransigent on the question of adherence to nuclear safeguards and lied to the IAEA? Can anyone really believe that after decades in pursuit of a nuclear weapon and now being within a hair's breadth of achieving that objective, the Iranians are now willing to give it all up to break bread with the US?
IN ALL likelihood, the offer to ship up to 75% of Iran's known uranium stockpile to Russia is merely a ploy to buy Iran more time to complete the final stage of achieving nuclear weapons capability. Iran no doubt has a substantial amount of undeclared enriched uranium that it will continue to refine into weapons-grade uranium.
There is also the question of whether Russia can be a trusted player in all this. Given its historical support of Iran, its role in constructing the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and its pending sale of anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran, Russia's motives are somewhat questionable.
In any event, it seems unlikely that Russia will ultimately sign on to strict new sanctions. If this were to be the case, it would mark a significant shift in Russia's historical position. Surely it has known for some time of the existence of the second uranium processing facility.
Both Russia's and China's economic interests are the primary drivers of their foreign policy with Iran. Both are likely to continue their decades-long economic and political support of Iran. In general, international sanctions can only really work when all big military powers play along. It seems unlikely that the US, UN, or any other power will want to directly engage Russian or Chinese ships attempting to deliver goods to Iran during a blockade. The Russians have historically tried to delegitimize international sanctions, as these have been used against Russia in the past. And China has tended to agree to impose sanctions when they suit its agenda. In this case, they do not.
Even if both Russia and China were to agree to sanctions, Iran has for years been steadily reducing its dependence on foreign sources of refined oil products, while enhancing its refining capabilities. Seven of the country's nine refineries are in the process of being expanded, while seven new refineries are either planned or already under construction, effectively doubling Iran's refining capabilities. Iran currently refines 75% of its required gasoline. This figure is expected to rise to 85% by 2010, and Iran should be completely self-sufficient by 2012. The Iranians construct their refineries themselves, and so are not reliant on international companies for their completion.
IN ADDITION, since 2006 Iran has been converting its cars to run on indigenous natural gas, further reducing its dependence on imported gasoline. So the idea that severely restricting exports of gasoline will serve as an inducement for Iran to stop its weapons program is not convincing at all.
Encouraging the adoption of more financial sanctions against Iran could have some success, but, as has been seen with the current round of financial sanctions, it is relatively easy to thwart such sanctions, as there are simply too many financial institutions and means of transferring funds for sanctions to be completely successful.
Iran has clearly anticipated the adoption of additional sanctions by the West for years and has crafted policies and practices designed to minimize their impact. Iran appears to be quite willing to endure additional economic sanctions. Its actions to date are totally consistent with this belief. So what prospect of success exists for meaningful sanctions against Iran? Very little.
It would be nice to believe that Iran's opening salvo in Geneva will neatly and quickly resolve the lingering question of what to do about the Iranian nuclear question, but the smarter bet would be to assume that additional evidence of deception by the Iranians will be uncovered and this will prove to be nothing more than confirmation of all the West's worst fears about Iran.
A more stringent sanctions regime will follow, which will ultimately prove to be unsuccessful. The question US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must surely be considering is when military action will be pursued against Iran, and by whom, since both leaders have said Iran will not be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon.
The writer is managing director of Country Risk