The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Lessons in Diplomacy from the Iran Sanctions

March 28, 2011

The Security Council's June 2010 sanctions against Iran reflect the concerns of not only the permanent members of but also such emerging key players as Turkey and Brazil. Japan must carefully tread its course to protect its own interests while meeting the expectations of its partners.

*     *     *

On June 9, 2010, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in connection with its nuclear development program. On August 3, the Japanese cabinet approved a new set of Iran sanctions in keeping with the UN resolution. Among other things, these latest measures freeze the assets of 40 organizations and one individual identified by the Security Council as involved in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, prohibit Iranian investment in Japanese firms engaged in development of nuclear technology, and ban the transfer of funds to or from entities that play a role in supplying Iran with heavy weapons.

To protect its own national interests, Japan, which depends on Iran for much of its oil, must respond to these developments with a clear strategic understanding of the roles Washington and other governments played in the adoption of these sanctions and their motives for acting as they did.

Russia and China were clearly the two pivotal players in this drama. Along with Britain, France, and the United States, they are permanent members of the UN Security Council, and as such have the power to veto any resolution. For this reason, Russia, which has cooperated with Iran on the latter’s civilian nuclear development program, and China, which has close trade and investment ties with Iran in the energy sector, have been the focus of attempts to negotiate an international accord on action against Tehran. For months both countries were unwilling to go along with the new sanctions the United States was pushing with the backing of its Western European allies. What made them change their minds and vote in favor of the resolution?

Two other countries that played key roles were Brazil and Turkey, nonpermanent Security Council members that voted against the latest resolution. Turkey, an increasingly influential player in the Arab Middle East, merits our particular attention both as a key to understanding the region’s affairs and as a potential diplomatic partner of Japan. Let us begin, then, with Turkey, which emerged as a new factor in the Iran sanctions picture just this past spring.

Turkey’s Intent and Impact

When the administration of US President Barack Obama initially made the appeal for additional sanctions on Iran, it had hoped to get a resolution adopted by the end of April. However, the proposal hit a snag in the Security Council, and Washington was obliged to wait until June. With Russia and China holding out against tougher sanctions, Turkey and Brazil brokered a fuel-swap agreement under which Iran would send low-enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for supplies of processed nuclear fuel, a deal to which Iran agreed on May 17. Why did Brazil and Turkey take the initiative?

As Senior Fellow Yoshiaki Sasaki has pointed out in "Will the United States Entrust the Middle East to Turkey?" and elsewhere, much of Turkey’s behavior on the international stage of late has been motivated by an ambition to strengthen its clout in the Middle East and eventually take its place as a leader in the region. In a recent blog entry (no. 1719, August 4, 2010), Sasaki discusses Turkey’s new cachet among the Arab states, attributing it above all to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outspoken criticism of Israeli “war crimes” in Gaza (notably at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2009) and his tough, unyielding response to the killing of nine Turkish citizens in an attack by Israeli commandos on a Turkish flotilla carrying supplies to Gaza. Turkey also has economic motives for mediating on behalf of Iran, as it did recently: although its relationship with Tehran is marred by mutual distrust, the two countries share major business interests in connection with the Iran-Turkey gas pipeline deal.

This does not mean that Turkey is likely to settle into a confrontational stance vis-à-vis the United States and Israel, however. As Sasaki noted in his report to the Tokyo Foundation’s July 23 Overview Meeting, the Obama administration views Turkey’s growing influence with equanimity and has maintained good relations with Ankara. And given the historical influence of the region’s many Jews and persons of Jewish ancestry ever since the Ottoman Empire, Turkey is unlikely to push Israel too far.

As for Brazil’s government, I believe that its aim is to enhance the country’s prestige within Latin America through a foreign policy that keeps a certain measure of independence from the United States, at times maneuvering with others to counteract American power. In short, it is the same basic strategy that Turkey has adopted vis-à-vis the Arab world.

Both countries, in any case, are doing well economically, which gives them the capacity and the clout to play a more active role, and not only in respect to Iran. Henceforth the movements of these new players on the international stage—Turkey in particular—will merit our close attention.

The Gulf Nations and Pakistan

In his recent report on Southwest Asia , Research Fellow Nobutaka Miyahara assessed the probable impact of the latest round of sanctions on Iran. While acknowledging that the international community is bound to keep up the pressure on Iran in view of the potential threat its nuclear program poses to nonproliferation and security in the Middle East, he argues that although the sanctions are likely to hurt the Iranian economy, pressure from the outside generally works to the political benefit of the ruling Islamic government. Miyahara concludes that Iran will weather the sanctions without too much difficulty, at least for the next year or so.

Miyahara also notes that while Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations in the Persian Gulf region are officially opposed to a nuclear Iran and in compliance with the UN sanctions, they have muted their response so as not to antagonize Tehran. Pakistan, meanwhile, views Iran’s plight with indifference given the sectarian differences between the two countries (Pakistan is Sunni; Iran, Shia) and their competition to secure influence over Afghanistan. The main concern of Pakistan seems to be how the situation can be used to gain leverage in its dealings with both Iran and the United States—this in addition to the Iran-Pakistan pipeline project, a bargaining card that it can likewise use with Washington as well as Tehran.

Russia and China—Little to Lose

Next let us consider the motives of Russia and China in voting for the latest Iran sanctions in the Security Council. As Research Fellow Taisuke Abiru points out in his Russia analysis , Moscow’s cooperation was made possible above all by the progress the United States and Russia have made in “resetting” bilateral relations, a reconciliation embodied in the New START nuclear arms control agreement. Moreover, since a gasoline embargo and other tough measures advocated by Israel and some in Congress were absent from the sanctions that the United States submitted to the Security Council in May, Russia was able to win points by cooperating with the Obama administration without compromising its economic relationship with Iran.

One of the most intriguing elements of Abiru’s analysis is his focus on the statement by a noted Russian foreign policy analyst suggesting that Moscow and Washington gave Turkey and Brazil prior approval for the fuel-swap deal they concluded with Iran. As Abiru sees it, this suggests that the Obama administration’s real objective in pushing through the latest sanctions was to “give the appearance of ‘getting tough’ on Iran while in fact using the agreement mediated by Brazil and Turkey as a means of gradually bringing Iran back to the P-5+1 (permanent Security Council members plus Germany) table”—and furthermore that Russia was well aware that this was Washington’s intent.

What of China, then? In his China analysis , Research Fellow Takashi Sekiyama offers three reasons for Beijing’s change of heart. First, the Chinese had no wish to antagonize Washington again so soon after President Hu Jintao had smoothed things over between the United States and China by his attendance at the April 13 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, especially given ongoing pressure from the United States for Beijing to float the undervalued yuan. Second, the resolution submitted by the United States was relatively easy for China to support, since it omitted such potentially painful measures as sanctions on the Export Development Bank of Iran, which plays a major role in trade with China. Third, Beijing’s support for the sanctions did nothing to undermine its relationship with Tehran; to the contrary, China is in an excellent position to strengthen its relative influence over Iran as other countries back away.

Obama and Japan’s Balancing Act

Finally, in my own analysis of the US role in the sanctions drama, I emphasized the domestic political situation facing the increasingly unpopular Obama administration with the November midterm elections just over the horizon. From the standpoint of boosting his approval ratings, Obama needed to demonstrate in concrete terms his willingness to get tough on Iran. At the same time, he was wary of driving Israel to desperate measures—such as an air strike on Iran—particularly given the relatively cool posture this administration had adopted toward Israel thus far in hopes of making progress toward a peace settlement in the Middle East. It seems to me, therefore, that the Obama administration’s basic objective in drafting the latest sanctions was not so much to punish Iran as to pacify Israel and address the dissatisfaction and fears of American voters.

That said, the latest sanctions are real, however watered down, and can be expected to have an actual impact on Iran. For this reason Japan will need to perform a balancing act, meeting the expectations of Washington, our ally, without sacrificing our own interests by severing economic ties with Iran, which supplies much of the oil we use. Especially after the strain in relations caused by former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s erratic policy on the relocation of US forces in Okinawa, the Japanese government must take great care to correctly gauge the intent of Washington and the other major players in regard to Iran.

What this means, in effect, is that the Japanese government must avoid responding proactively to anticipated pressure from Washington and rushing to adopt stronger measures toward Iran than necessary. At the same time, as an ally, we must keep in step with the United States, appreciating the political urgency of the situation from the Obama administration’s standpoint. Meanwhile, we must be wary lest Japan suffer economically while China and Russia, having adopted a prudent and expedient stance toward Iran, reap all the benefits, and we must make sure at all times that our ally the United States is aware of such concerns.

We must also recognize the growing importance of Turkey as an emerging player on the international stage. Turkey is a friend to Japan, with whom it shares deep historical ties, and 2010 is Japan Year in Turkey. As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey is an ally of the United States and Europe. Meanwhile, its influence in the Arab world is on the rise. Turkey has the potential to play a key role as Japan works to steer a course between its economic partner Iran and its ally the United States. As an element of our foreign policy strategy, we need to give careful thought to ways of nurturing common interests and cooperative ties with this increasingly influential country.

    • Senior Fellow, Tokyo Foundation Senior Fellow, Sasakawa Peace Foundation
    • Tsuneo Watanabe
    • Tsuneo Watanabe




Click on the link below to contact an expert or submit a question.