Thursday, July 5, 2012

Post #284 - Slippery Sanctions

The following was cross-posted on the Voices from Russia blog (not to be confused with the original source, Voice of Russia World Service):

The USA welcomed the EU embargo on Iran that came into effect on 1 July. Two days before, the Americans slapped economic sanctions on banks and companies that engaged in trade with Iran. However, they exempted nearly 20 countries, including China, from them. Beijing said that it does not intend to scale down oil imports from Iran. The USA postponed the imposition of sanctions against China and exempted another 18 countries, including Japan, South Korea, Britain, and a number of EU countries. In explanation, US Secretary of State Hillary  Clinton said that the countries in question have substantially cut down oil shipments from Iran, thereby demonstrating what breaches of international nuclear commitments could lead to. According to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hong Lei, Beijing imports Iranian oil in accordance with the law and is strongly against unilateral restrictions against any other countries.

Andrei Volodin, the head of the Oriental Research Centre of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, said, “Early this year, we saw a slight drop in oil supplies, but Washington had nothing to do with it. China saw a reduction in oil imports from Iran because the two sides were at odds over the price of oil at the beginning of the year. They settled the dispute by spring and Iranian oil shipments to China increased between April and June. If Beijing chooses to cut Iranian oil imports, it will do so because of economic slowdown, but nothing of the sort is observed at the moment”.

Whilst announcing sanctions against Iran's trade partners, the USA can’t afford any drastic moves against China. Beijing and Washington boast close economic ties. China is the world’s number two economy capable of consistently upholding its interests. A VOR [Voices of Russia] correspondent met with Oriental Studies expert Andrei Ostrovsky, who said, “The USA and China depend on one another. Naturally, the USA opted to extend the time frame for the introduction of sanctions. It has no other levers to resort to. China’s strong enough to take its own decisions and possesses sufficient potential to ignore threats”.

India and South Korea have exemption from the sanctions as well. Analyst Dmitri Abzalov said, “Apparently, Washington is powerless to exert concerted pressure on Tehran. China’s position is strong indeed. China holds the bulk of US debt, and no one wants to spoil relations with the world’s largest producer and creditor. Iran accounts for a considerable part of Chinese imports, and Beijing wishes to expand exports to Iran. This proves that Washington will find it more than challenging to mount overall resistance to Iran, particularly in the east. Looking to China, Iran switched to non-cash payments, and was able to adapt to a ban on transit operations. Without China, Washington’s efforts will be useless. Naturally, the USA opted for a transitional solution to save face”.

Washington might find it particularly troublesome to bicker with Beijing ahead of the election. By putting off the imposition of sanctions, President Obama has de facto postponed a solution to the issue for the next presidential term. The Republicans were quick to jump on this, accusing the current administration of betraying national interests. Mitt Romney's supporters will surely exploit this over the next few months. Experts say, however, that even if the Republicans win the vote, they’ll have to take a pragmatic approach, and their vociferous statements will remain nothing more than words.

2 July 2012

Polina Chernitsa

Aleksandra Dibizheva

Voice of Russia World Service

What this kind of reportage shows is that the administration may in fact be taking care of business, but not in the way their Republican opponents would like.  Foreign policy (like all of politics) is "the art of the possible."  One does not get to tell the mountains to move and they move.  Also, a realistic and effective foreign policy is one that has room in it for discretion, nuance and patience.  Second and third channel diplomacy often ultimately accomplish the objective, while the public face of one's policy is quite definitive and seemingly intractable.  In short, the present course, which Obama's detractors view as timid and even treasonous, may eventually get what most of us want:  a constructive relationship with an Iran that threatens no one, without having to go through Armageddon to get there.

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