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What the Sequel to Argo Might Look Like Part III: The Really Interesting Part

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Think Pieces | February 19, 2013 |

By Wojtek Góralczyk | Think Pieces | February 19, 2013 |

Previously on…

Change of plan. Emma Stone is out. All the exposition will be delivered by Kevin Spacey straight into the camera. Just obnoxiously rammed down your throat with hardly a garnish. And you’re gonna take it, and say “Thank you, Sir!” Are we clear?


So…. the last chapter of this protracted saga hinges on the UN Security Council - 15 countries, 5 with permanent seats and veto power, and 10 with 2-year stints. Basically, if you manage to push your agenda through that needle’s eye, you get to say that the world stands united with you, and collect ALL the political gold coins. Which was precisely what Obama needed. Unfortunately, you can’t do that without joining the daisy chain of multilateral joy. Remember that “West Wing” episode where they had to shuffle a lot of people around various posts to get that one guy? It’s like that, except you’re trying to do that to governments.

For sanctions against Iran to be effective, you need to get the Europeans on board, because they have the strongest trade ties to that country. To get the Europeans, you need a United Nations resolution, because that makes them feel less like America’s bitches. To get a United Nations resolution, you need to get it through the Security Council with at least 9 votes, and no permanent member vetoes. And for that, assuming France and Great Britain are on board, you need to rope in Russia and China.

China is tricky and trauma-ridden. She had to endure a century of being semi-colonized, followed by a flat-out Japanese invasion. And after that nightmare was over, she found herself locked for decades in an alternate reality where everyone pretended like she wasn’t there and instead only talked to her twin sister Taiwan. This has left her fiercely adverse to the idea of intervention in other countries’ affairs (it doesn’t hurt that the same line can be used to justify her doing whatever the hell she wants to Tibet), and at the same time very uncomfortable with being the odd man out. China would much rather do a Canada: make elk horns with her fingers and pretend she’s grazing while someone louder voices her objections and catches the resultant flak. She would still need to be buttered up with loopholes and backdoors to keep its investments in Iran, but the price would drop significantly if she were to stand alone.

Which brings us to Russia and the American “reset” of relations with Moscow. Ever wondered what the price of Russian cooperation on a single resolution might be? How do an end to NATO expansion and scrapping plans for the American missile defense shield in Eastern Europe sound? Because lo and behold - in September of 2009, the White House announced that shields are for pussies, so whatever. Still, the timing was a bit tricky, as Moscow was just about to sell her own missiles to Tehran…

Which is where Saudi Arabia comes in. The Saudis would hate for America and Iran to start talking because since the Iranian revolution, they’ve become Washington’s go-to people in the region. And that position comes with certain perks. To use a horribly offensive analogy - you’re sort of Sam Jackson from Django Unchained, except Leo is perpetually away on business. Saudi Arabia still remembers when Iran was Washington’s gatekeeper. It wasn’t fun for them then, and if history were to repeat itself - this time around it would be exponentially worse. For the past 20 years, as the region’s pariah Iran was able to get away with saying - and doing - stuff the Saudis and other Arab autocracies that want to stay on Washington’s good side could not. Namely: getting very vocal and supportive of the Palestinians to the point of effectively hijacking the Palestinian cause. This bears breaking down: Shiite Persians from a thousand miles away are more vocal about the plight of a Sunni Arabic population than the Sunni Arab regimes next door. It doesn’t look good on paper, and it plays absolutely dreadfully on Arab streets. The result is that Arab autocracies hate and fear Iran even more than they do Israel.

It should then come as no surprise that the Saudis were very happy to help Washington grease the wheels for sanctions. They offered to buy Russian arms, just so they wouldn’t go to Iran, and then pledged to increase oil production to make up for any shortages China could suffer due to bans on Iranian exports. Things were clicking into place. But again, none of this was happening in a vacuum. The White House might have lost most of its drive for negotiations, but diplomacy still had several advocates around the world - and two of them decided to take things into their own hands.

The first one was Brazil. Yes, that Brazil. A girl from Ipanema who saw a story not entirely unlike her own. You see, at one time Brazil had pursued her own nuclear program, complete with a covert military component. And like most Western Hemisphere countries, she knew the joys of American scrutiny all too well. Though she has since voluntarily renounced nuclear arms, Washington’s policy towards Tehran has raised some red flags in Brasilia. Iran is basically being denied the right to enrich uranium, even for civilian purposes. Naturally, that’s because it’s quite obviously trying to get the bomb - but the principle remains the same. And should that principle become reinforced with a precedent, other countries’ (like, say, Brazil’s) enrichment programs could become subject to foreign intervention. The strategic concern alone was hard to swallow for Brazilian President Lula, but the fact that at the same time American friends India and Pakistan have openly obtained nuclear weapons, and yet face no condemnation, pushes it straight into Heimlich territory - especially if you run a leftist government and have a hard-on for anti-imperialist rhetoric.

And then there’s the fact that Brazil has grand designs of its own. For some time now, it has been gunning for a permanent seat on the Security Council, should the UN reform ever actually happen. As such, it is looking for opportunities to demonstrate its involvement in global affairs, and the Middle East is arguably the best stage for this particular type of flexing. That is why the Brazilians decided to step in and try to revive the seemingly abandoned uranium swap deal (see part two). But when they arrived at Iran’s house, someone was already there, ringing the doorbell. And that someone was Turkey.

Whereas Brazil’s involvement can be grossly oversimplified as a principled power play, Ankara was focused on the bottom line. Turkey currently ranks as the 7th largest economy in Europe (the fact that such a ranking even exists is a perfect encapsulation of Turkey’s unique circumstance, as 97% of the country is NOT EVEN IN EUROPE) and it’s aiming even higher. Money don’t make itself though, and it’s very hard to focus when your house is on fire. The American… refurbishing of Iraq gave Ankara a major headache. One: war is bad for business, and two: it activated the Kurds, a stateless people living in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, who probably wouldn’t include “being stateless” among their top 5 favorite things ever. Another showdown with another Kurd-rich neighbor… no.

At the same time, Ankara is wary of growing Iranian influence. As American power in the Middle East wanes (yes, even you can get overextended), Iran has been filling in the vacuum. And Turkey has taken it upon itself to keep that process in check. Using the power of HUGS. The Turks are attempting to do what the Allies did to Germany after WWII: instead of isolating or vilifying them, try to get them involved in as many local initiatives as possible, until they become part of the system and have no motivation to topple it. Continuing this strategy, Turkey moved to reopen the uranium swap negotiations - and that’s where she bumped heads with Brazil. Which was something of a Godsend. Any deal the Turks negotiated with Iran could be discredited as “Muslim solidarity”, but the involvement of a Catholic Latina with sparkly titties pretty much invalidated that argument.

And so, hand in hand, Turkey and Brazil turned to the White House and offered to try to broker an agreement with Iran. By then President Obama was already bent over backwards trying to make sanctions happen, but he agreed, and even gave them a letter enumerating all the benchmarks that would have to be met for the US to accept the deal: 1200 kilograms of low-enriched uranium, up front, leaving Iran in one shipment, and stored in a third party nation (Turkey). Get the Iranians to agree to that, and we’re in business. Given how firmly the White House was holding the stick at that point, it’s a bit unclear as to why it sanctioned a second serving of the carrot. Chances are, it simply didn’t believe the mediation would be successful - even the decidedly more diplomacy-minded Russian President Medvedev gave Turkey and Brazil a 30% chance of success at most. But there it was.

And there it was again, but this time with jaws clamped on a mouthful of ass, on 17th May 2010, when Brazilian President Lula, Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan, and Iranian President Ahmadinejad jointly announced that they have reached an agreement. In several months, Brazil and Turkey accomplished what the Western powers had been trying to do for years. The deal got a stamp of approval from the (now former) President of IAEA ElBaradei and the UN Secretary General. People whooped, and clapped, and turned to America, jubilant smiles on their faces.
America, in turn, reached out towards them, palms up, and bashfully proclaimed: Poo-poo! On me handsies!

Unbeknownst to the mediators, on the eve of the Brazilian President’s departure for Iran, the US secured Russia and China’s agreement for sanctions. It was a done deal anyway. By then, Obama had spent too much political capital for the outcome to be a simple stopgap uranium swap. He needed to score a big win, fit for parading before Congress and the world, to justify the effort that went into the whole debacle. So the White House announced that the deal didn’t meet its requirements and pursued sanctions.

The worst part is that even that win wasn’t a slam dunk. In the land of political posturing, appearances are king, and Obama’s trophy arrived with a very prominent dent. George W. Bush had managed, without spending even an ounce of prestige on outreach, to secure three rounds of UN sanctions against Iran, two of which were adopted unanimously, and one with a single abstention. Obama’s resolution passed as well, but with one abstention and, for the first time, two votes against. Can you guess what two countries - that also just happened to be serving on the Security Council at the time - cast them? One starts with a T and was left in a very tricky position, and the other was so pissed off that it leaked Obama’s letter to the press.

And so it goes. The amount of crap that needs to be overcome for USA and Iran to get out of this vicious cycle is just staggering. Even with the best intentions - and it appears that at certain points both sides really did want to make a change - there’s just too much that can go wrong. (Those three walls of text are just the tip of the iceberg, by the way - for an infinitely better account check out Trita Parsi’s “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy With Iran”. It’s amazeballs.) So for now it’s sanctions which, while slowing down Iran’s progress on the nuclear front, haven’t done anything to alter its course. And to make things bleaker, they’re subject to diminishing returns: each new round weakens the Western powers’ economic ties to Iran, reducing their ability to influence it.

Is there a way out of the stalemate? I have no idea, but about two weeks ago Ahmadinejad offered to get himself shot into outer space. I’m not saying THAT’S the solution, but at this point - could it really hurt?

Wojtek is off to masturbate for several months