Politics & Policy

Iran: Isolated No Longer

It has the Obama administration to thank.

Less than a month after it was signed in Lausanne, Switzerland, the framework nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 powers is already beginning to pay dividends — for Iran, that is.

Even before the April 2 accord, the enforced isolation that brought Iran’s ayatollahs to the nuclear negotiating table back in 2013 had begun to erode, progressively undermined by hungry investors eager to return to “business as usual” with the Islamic Republic. But since the framework deal was signed, the floodgates have opened in earnest.

Russia has been the most conspicuous entrant into the Iranian market. On April 13, the Kremlin formally repealed its longstanding ban on the delivery of S-300 air-defense systems to Iran. That controversial sale, concluded in 2007, had been held in abeyance for years by Moscow in response to Western fears that the advanced systems might make Iranian nuclear sites impregnable. Now, Russia has reversed course, thanks to the West’s nuclear diplomacy. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin made clear that his decision to put the S-300 deal back on track had everything to do with the “progress” made to date on the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, as a result of which his government no longer saw “any reason to continue to keep the ban unilaterally.”

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And the S-300s could be just the beginning. Iran is now estimated to need $11 to $13 billion worth of arms annually for planned military modernization, and Moscow — a traditional arms supplier for the Islamic Republic — is the most likely source for this hardware. Russian officials, in fact, are banking on it. “Iran has an ambitious program to rearm its army, and Russia could become Tehran’s main arms supplier,” Russian defense analyst Yuri Barmin has noted.

Russia is not alone. Increasingly, China is getting in on the game as well. Iran and China are now said to be exploring an expanded defense relationship, and hope to boost their bilateral trade by some 10 percent, to $60 billion annually, in the immediate future. Beijing also recently announced plans to build five new nuclear plants in the Islamic Republic — significantly bolstering the Iranian regime’s nascent nuclear potential.

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#related#Moreover, Iran is increasingly seen as a useful strategic partner by China. Last fall, the two countries’ naval chiefs met in Beijing to map out new plans for military cooperation. Now, those plans are moving forward — and expanding. No less senior an official than Chinese defense minister Chang Wanquan has thrown his weight behind the idea of tripartite strategic cooperation among Iran, Russia, and China against “common threats,” laying the groundwork for a new (and anti-American) axis.

To most observers in the West, this would seem like bad news. After all, an Iran already out of the “box” imposed by Western pressure and economic sanctions has less and less incentive to compromise on its nuclear ambitions.

The White House, however, doesn’t see it that way. President Obama brushed off news of the Russian decision, saying that he was “frankly surprised” it had taken this long for Moscow to resume its arms trade with Tehran. On China’s overtures, he hasn’t bothered to say anything at all. And, instead of seeking to preserve Iran’s isolation until its leaders make meaningful concessions on their nuclear program, the administration is working overtime to end it.

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As an enticement for Iran’s ayatollahs to conclude a final accord, the White House now appears to be considering a “signing bonus” of as much as $50 billion for the Islamic Republic. This sum would apparently come on top of the tens of billions of dollars in frozen oil revenues that the Iranians are expected to receive in short order. Needless to say, these sums would be a massive shot in the arm for Iran’s still-rickety economy.

But for Tehran, the money is bound to be just the icing on the cake. The real prize — made possible by the framework deal signed in Lausanne, and the tantalizing promise of a final one to be concluded shortly — is Iran’s reemergence as a global power, and its growing appeal as a strategic partner for the likes of Russia and China. For that turn of events, the Islamic Republic has the Obama administration to thank.

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