Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ian Bremmer: Iran is ultimately likely to go nuclear as North Korea did

Ian Bremmer is the president of the Eurasia Group, a New York based think-tank. He is one of the leading American experts on Russia, the Post-Soviet states and Asia. Mr.Bremmer is also the author of "The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?" He gives his assessments of the situation around Iran, the problems in negotiating a new agreement to replace the START Treaty between Russia and the United States as well as his point on the political and energy turf wars in Europe, in an interview with RIA Novosti New York Bureau chief Dmitry Gornostaev.

- Iran has said it's prepared to exchange the nuclear fuel on its territory only. Why is this condition unacceptable for the US as it seems to be one of the few ways to make a diplomatic deal with Iran? In the current situation, is the negotiating track still considered to be a realistic one or the US has nothing to do but close the door to negotiations and proceed with sanctions?

- Iran has consistently hidden key components of its enrichment program from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The discovery late last year that Iran had hidden an underground nuclear site at Qom has dampened hopes within the Obama administration that Iran might be willing to make an acceptable deal, and the latest IAEA report on the program argues that the problem continues. Given that history, Washington insists that there cannot be a diplomatic solution unless Tehran’s compliance with the agreement can be easily verified by international inspectors. The US and its European partners will continue with negotiations, but the UN Security Council will likely take up another sanctions resolution soon.

- The idea of new sanctions against Tehran has seemingly got - if not an approval, then at least the concession - of Russia and the only objection is from China. Why is Beijng so reluctant to sanctions even after the new IAEA report only increased the concerns of Iran building a nuclear weapon? Is it possible that China will give up?

- China has been the most reluctant because it imports large quantities of energy from Iran, because it doesn’t like the appearance of doing anything under pressure from Washington, and because Iran’s nuclear program doesn’t pose a direct threat to China’s interests. Yet, China will probably support some form of sanctions, given the IAEA report, Russia’s position on the issue and the latest news from Tehran. They do not want to be the only UNSC permanent member to cast a veto.

- It's a bit surprising to watch the US trying to persuade China on Iran and at the same time kicking Beijing by selling arms to Taiwan and welcoming the Dalai Lama to the White House. Were these two apparently anti-Chinese moves more important for Washington than getting China on board in terms of UN sanctions against Tehran?

- These problems in US-Chinese relationship are not as serious as they appear. There is nothing new about arms sales to Taiwan, and China isn’t particularly threatened by them. The Dalai Lama is a similar story. Every president since Ronald Reagan has met with the Dalai Llama at least once, and the Obama administration was careful to downplay the importance of the meeting after refusing to meet with him last year on the eve of a crucial G20 meeting. Again, China will take the usual diplomatic steps to express disapproval in a case like this, but there are many issues in US-Chinese relations that are far more important to both sides.

- The Israeli prime minister proposed to impose sanctions on Iran without the UN Security Council approval in case China (and possibly Russia) doesn't agree. Do you think that the Obama administration can go for actions bypassing the UN Security Council, as the Bush administration did when starting the war against Iraq?

- The Obama administration sees these as separate tracks. First, let be clear that I do not see any real risk of US military strikes against Iran. On the sanctions process, the US will work through the Security Council, but it will also work with allies and other willing partners to tighten sanctions in other ways. Washington hopes to craft sanctions that will inflict as much financial pain as possible on the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guard but harm the Iranian people as little as possible. That’s why you do not see more support within the Obama administration for sanctions that would cut gasoline supplies to Iran. That kind of move would hurt millions of Iranians. On the other hand, the US does want to restrict the flow of revenue for Iran’s government—and perhaps the personal financial transactions of those at the highest levels of the leadership. This will not be easy, and it remains very unlikely that sanctions in any form will persuade Iran’s government to renounce its nuclear ambitions.

- Then this means that the sanctions will miss their goal to secure the non-proliferation regime, doesn't it?

- Yes, Iran is ultimately likely to go nuclear, just as North Korea did—though Tehran may avoid actually testing a weapon in order to maintain a kind of ambiguity on the issue. There is deep division within Iran on many questions, but this is not one of them; there is broad and deep support for the nuclear program both within the leadership and the general public. The international non-proliferation regime is broken, and only a serious crisis is likely to create real momentum behind efforts to fix it.

- The White House said it didn't exclude any option on Iran, including a military one. But it's obvious that it has to say that in order to maintain pressure on Tehran. In practical terms, do you think that a military strike against Iran or even a limited ground military operation against its nuclear sites is possible, and can this be effective in longer terms?

- In the military sense, damage could certainly be inflicted. But the effectiveness of strikes would depend on the attacker’s goals. It is extremely unlikely that Iran’s nuclear program could be destroyed, though it could certainly be delayed for some time via damage to key underground sites.
But neither the Americans nor the Israelis appear to believe that the benefits that might come with a military attack are worth the potential costs. There are many opinions on these questions, but there are also two very important facts to consider: Neither the US nor Israeli government has undertaken any attack on an Iranian nuclear facility. This is a reflection of their growing skepticism that any military option can achieve its goal at an acceptable “cost.” That cost would take many forms—political, diplomatic, security, economic, etc.

- What is your assessment of the process of negotiating the new START agreement between Russia and the US? Many promises have been made from both sides that the deal would be sealed pretty soon, but it's still unfinished. What is the main obstacle for this delay? Do you think that it can be removed to open the way for conclusion by the April nuclear summit in Washington?

- Reaching a new strategic arms control treaty is an important near-term goal of the "reset" in US-Russia relations, and while the two sides failed to conclude a deal by the end of 2009, as Presidents Medvedev and Obama suggested they might, intensive negotiations are ongoing. The key sticking point concerns missile defense capabilities. Russia insists that the treaty cover not only offensive weapons, as in the past, but also includes more transparency on US tests of defensive systems. Washington has always promised the Russians a degree of transparency about its missile defense plans but is reluctant in practice to allow its ballistic missile defense programs to be compromised in any way by treaty obligations. This is particularly true given Moscow's bristling displeasure with the missile defense plans. Presidents Obama and Medvedev may personally discuss the issue again in coming days, and while the April deadline may be in some doubt, this is an issue of sufficient mutual interest that a deal is still expected at some point this spring.

- Do you think that the announcement of the possibility to deploy the BMD elements in Romania and Bulgaria can affect the arms reduction process? Many Russian experts say that the last year Obama's decision on ABM defense in Europe was in no way a move toward Russia but a more sophisticated reshaping of the future ABM system. Saying that means that this problem will continue to be a major irritant in Russian-American relations. What is your point on that?

- Missile defense is not a high priority for the Obama administration, but I do think it has the potential to continue to impact US-Russian relations. Moscow finds missile defense an irritant, but I don't believe that Washington is willing to completely give up on it. We have to remember that this issue is not simply about Russia. It’s a key principle in America’s relations with its NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

- But at the same time Washington doesn't like the idea of submitting the decision on missile defense deployment in Europe to NATO in Brussels, while some in the Alliance, (Germany, for example) have indicated at least reservations, if not opposition to US plans. Does the current situation mean that Obama's decision to shelve the deployment hasn’t changed at all the US strategy on missile defense in Europe?

- The Obama administration will not push on the issue of missile defense, but it is not going to eliminate the idea either. Missile defense remains a part of US strategy in the region.

- On NATO, a decision was made not to make any decision in regards of accepting Ukraine and Georgia into the Alliance. For how long will this uncertainty last? Can Mr. Yanukovich's victory in the presidential elections in Ukraine stop the previous efforts of the political elite of Ukraine to join NATO. I mean not the general process of building closer ties with the Euro-Atlantic community but, precisely, the issue of joining NATO.

And the same question is on Georgia - can the present uncertainty with the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia block Tbilisi from joining NATO, at least unless their status is resolved?

- I think that the election of Yanukovych will end the conversation about Ukraine joining NATO for the foreseeable future. But talk of membership for Ukraine and Georgia was always a long-term issue. The US and Europe have too much lose in terms of stability along the former Soviet periphery from dramatically worsened relations with Russia. Neither country was ever going to join NATO in the next five years. Recent developments simply ensure that a long-term project will take even longer—if it EVER happens.
I wouldn't say that recent developments will put a permanent end to NATO enlargement, but we should see much less talk about (and tension over) the issue over the next few years. For the moment, there is very little support for further expansion within Europe.

- NATO is preparing a new concept for the Alliance. What should it inherit from the previous 1999 concept and what should be abandoned? Why did it decide to create a new concept?

- The need for a new concept is obvious: There is no longer a Soviet and Warsaw Pact threat to NATO member states, and the organization must build a broader mandate--Afghanistan isn't part of the “North Atlantic.” Some will argue that NATO has outlived its usefulness and should be abandoned. But the need for collective action on common security challenges remains vitally important for its member states. NATO should be working on more complicated threats, not simply traditional issues of war and peace. Security threats have become more sophisticated and flexible, and so should NATO. It’s not just about terrorism. Cyber-security, for example, is becoming more important by the minute. These are areas where NATO member states (and others) can benefit from a collective approach to security.

- At the same time Russia is pushing forward its idea of a new European Security Treaty, and it seems that these two processes can come into contradictions because Russia is trying to create an environment that will allow Moscow a say in the broader European Security system while the West wants to prevent Russia from blocking any possible options within the Euro-Atlantic security structures, like further enlargement of NATO or using the military structure of its future partners. What is your opinion on that? Will these two processes come into a clinch?

- The Russian government has been increasingly unhappy with the post Cold War regional balance of power, particularly following the so-called Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. With the 2008 war in Georgia, launched as Prime Minister Putin and President Bush sat side by side during the Beijing Summer Olympics, Russia moved suddenly and dramatically to shift that balance.

But tensions in the post-Soviet space have diminished quite a bit. There are several reasons. First, economic troubles in Russia forced Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev to focus their time and energy on keeping banks afloat, factories open, and workers in their jobs. Second, the US now plays a less visible role in the region as the Obama team tries to reset relations with Moscow and to win Russian support for sanctions on Iran. Building out NATO is not on the agenda. Third, Russia is feeling more secure about how things are going in Georgia, where President Saakashvili has been tamed, and in Ukraine, where the Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych has been elected president. Yanukovych is not a Kremlin puppet, by any means. He cannot afford to be if he hopes to maintain his political credibility at home. But Ukraine’s NATO bid will remain on hold for years to come.

With less tension in the region, I don’t think we will see the sort of confrontation you’re describing any time soon.

- I will put this question in a different way. Will the Russian push for a new security Treaty in Europe have a positive or negative response from the Obama administration?

- The US reaction would be negative, because Washington sees the new treaty as an attempt to create an alternative to NATO. But there isn’t much urgency behind the new treaty proposal, and I don’t think there is much chance that it will create significant trouble.

- We see similar trends in the energy security in Europe. Russia is pushing the South Stream project while some other countries support the de-facto competing Nabucco pipeline. What is your scenario of the competition between these two major energy projects?

- Europe is taking small but real steps to diversify gas supplies away from Russia. Yet, progress on the larger multi-country projects, like the Nabucco gas pipeline, will remain slow because of an ongoing inability to secure large enough gas supplies and financing to make the project viable. Smaller regional energy projects, like the Italy-Greece-Turkey Interconnector (ITGI), will make faster progress, and could end up competing for some of the same supplies that Nabucco wants.

Gazprom and the Russian government are making progress with the South Stream gas pipeline project and effectively undermining Nabucco. The Russian side is striking bilateral agreements with potential transit countries for the two-branch route, including Bulgaria, Serbia, Italy and Greece. Russia has signed a deal with Slovenia, but Romania is still on hold. Gazprom is, where possible, buying existing gas storage or planning the construction of new units along or near the South Stream route. EU law could complicate further acquisitions, though regulatory enforcement may be uneven and companies, including Gazprom, might work around the law by acting via third parties. South Stream is progressing faster than EU-backed alternatives, but the economic environment and remaining political hurdles could still delay Russia's project.

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