Losing the Rest: BRIC, IBSA and Iran

I could have included this in my previous post on President Barack Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation agenda, but it’s significant enough to warrant its own post. As Obama has pushed for UNSC sanctions against Iran, there’s been a lot of tea-leaf reading going on about Russia and China’s willingness to come on board. Parallel to that, there’s been a lesser amount of attention given to the “bad” UNSC that a sanctions resolution faces, and most notably Brazil and Turkey’s opposition to sanctions.

But this week demonstrated how those tracks are far from parallel. So even while Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao signaled some willingness to consider a new round of watered-down sanctions in Washington, they then traveled on to Brazilia for the BRIC summit. And there, they signaled that they see things the way the Brazilians do (Russia here, China here). What’s more, the same thing happened at the IBSA summit (India, Brazil and South Africa) held the same day. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had already stated his opposition to sanctions in Washington, but I’d yet to hear South African President Jacob Zuma pronounce on the subject.

This illustrates two very significant by-products of the U.S. determination to pursue UNSC sanctions. The first is that it is creating a rallying point for the “emerging rest,” which — rightly or wrongly — consider the sovereignty issues raised by the Iran nuclear program more important than the proliferation issues. Nothing surprising there. For India, the reasons are obvious. South Africa represents a case where nuclear proliferation actually reversed course, and Brazil renounced its nuclear weapons intentions before achieving them. So both, perhaps, see the Iran crisis not as a runaway bus heading down a one-way street and into a brick wall, but rather as a speeding vehicle with clever drivers, capable of changing lanes, hitting the brakes and putting the car in reverse.

The second thing this illustrates, though, is that for Russia and China, the calculus involves not just weighing bilateral relations with the U.S. versus bilateral relations with Iran, but doing so in the context of their multilateral relations with the emerging poles of what both consider is an increasingly multipolar world. In other words, while the U.S. is primarily playing the opponent on the field, the Russians and Chinese are also playing to the crowd.

This is important because, according to the Turkish foreign minister (and as I’ve pointed out here a few times now), the Iranian position on the nuclear fuel swap has shifted significantly in the past few weeks. From what I’ve heard, this is now a political dead letter in Washington, because the sanctions train has already left the station. But if so, Obama is missing an opportunity to pursue the sanctions that will satisfy his domestic critics, while also engaging in the diplomacy that will avoid antagonizing the “rising rest.”

This also might be the time for Obama to take a bolder step, and offer the Iranians a concrete guarantee on their right to maintain a domestic uranium enrichment capability, in return for finalizing the fuel swap deal and reimplementing the IAEA’s Additional Protocol. I’m not necessarily optimistic the Iranians would agree. But that would just isolate Tehran even more. If the BRIC-IBSA position includes a call for Iran to be more transparent and flexible, it’s largely due to the Obama administration’s Iran engagement track prior to the sanctions push. But as I’ve argued before, the engagement track was timid and short-lived. Strengthened by his recent victories, Obama can now afford to be bolder and more open-ended.

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