Why Russia & China Love Iran's Hardliners
05 Aug 2009 00:58
Russia knows how to play the hardliners -- by keeping them in need.
By MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles | 5 Aug 2009
Marg bar Amrica -- "Death to America."
For 30 years now, it has been the chant at every political gathering, every Friday prayer, and every demonstration staged by the state. Even the Majles (parliament) deputies have not always been able to help themselves. On many an occasion, members of Majlis would shout "Marg bar America" during a session discussing foreign policy. Even when high officials of the country meet with the Supreme Leader, his speech is repeatedly interrupted by chants of Marg bar America.
It is known that even when Iran and the United States were negotiating the release of the American hostages in the fall of 1980, the Iranian delegation, led by Behzad Nabavi, now a leading reformist leader and strategist (arrested after the rigged June 12 election), would chant Marg bar America before entering negotiation sessions.
The slogan is almost always accompanied by Marg bar Engelis (Death to England) and Marg bar Esrail (Death to Israel). The only time that the chanting stopped was in the first few weeks following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Suddenly everything changed. On Friday July 17, former president and powerful politician, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, led a highly anticipated Friday Prayer in Tehran. To preempt what he might say, and also to give him a message about what he should refrain from saying during his two sermons, the hardliners sent Reza Taghavi to speak before Rafsanjani -- it's a tradition to have someone speak before the actual Friday prayer imam.
Taghavi, who coordinates what Friday prayer leaders throughout the country should talk about in their sermons every week, raised a favorite issue with the hardliners -- then and now: foreign powers trying to meddle in Iran's internal affairs. Several times through his speech, he shouted Marg bar America. Normally, the crowd would respond by chanting the same.
Not this time. Each time Taghavi shouted Marg bar America, the crowd responded by chanting Marg bar Rusieh (Death to Russia) and Marg bar Chin (Death to China). At first, Taghavi seemed surprised. He was not used to such a response. But, by the end of his speech, he had grasped what was going on. People seemed to be rejecting the idea of the United States as their enemy during that period, and were expressing their anger at Russia and China instead. This kind of chanting has of course become routine now, during the demonstrations against the rigged election and against the hardliners.
Iranian people who chant Marg bar Russia and Marg bar China believe that they have good reasons to be angry. In addition to being the only major world powers to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his rigged election "victory," Russia and China have also been protecting the hardliners in Tehran in the international arena, and have been expanding their commercial and strategic relations with them.
On Tuesday June 16, Ahmadinejad went to Moscow to attend a conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Iran is not a member, but attends the meetings as an observer. Ahmadinejad did so while Iran was (and still is) in a deep crisis.
Ahmadinejad and his hardline supporters are keenly aware of Russia's experience with "color" revolutions in countries formerly within the influence of the Soviet Union. The loss of those states has shrunk Russia's sphere of influence and pained the Russian nationalists, particularly Vladimir Putin. So they are now trying to exploit the situation to their advantage. After all, it was Russia that warned Ahmadinehad about the possibility of a color revolution in Iran. Ahmadinejad, his supporters among the top commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the clerics have been ranting about the possibility ever since.
Putin and the Kremlin believe that the United States has betrayed Russia. While heralding American-Russian friendship, the Bush administration moved to prevent, or at least slow down, the resurgence of Russia. The Russians believe -- with good reason -- that the United States and its National Endowment for Democracy were instrumental in the 2003 Rose Revolution in Georgia, and in the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, both of which brought to power pro-West regimes. These were interpreted by Russia as attempts by the United States to limit its influence abroad, and to prevent it from rising up again as a world power.
Developing close relations with an Iran controlled by the hardliners is just one component of countering the United States and its efforts in that direction.
Much has been said over the past several weeks about the possible role of the CIA and the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, in the demonstrations that erupted in Iran after the election. The speculations have been made mostly by the extreme left, and some Iranian supporters of Ahmadinejad in the United States who admire his stance regarding Iran's nuclear program. The author has no doubts that the CIA (and Mossad) would try to stir things up in Iran if they could, regardless of what President Obama may say in public about the U.S. keeping its hands off Iran. After all, the Obama administration has not cut off the funding for the so-called democracy project in Iran that was put in place by its predecessor. But, the CIA and Mossad have extremely limited resources, if any, within Iran. Their influence and power to stir up trouble in Iran is minimal, if at all.
But, regardless of the extent to which the CIA or Mossad's meddles or tries to meddle in Iran, there is little doubt that Russia provided intelligence to Iran regarding such activities. In return, Ahmadinejad and his cohorts blew them way out of proportion to advance their agenda. So, perhaps Ahmadinejad went to Moscow to express his gratitude to the Russians, and that angered Iranians, particularly because it was in the midst of their huge demonstrations against the rigged election.
Russia has also exploited the fact that the hardliners in Iran need its protection and assistance. For several years now, it has virtually become a ritual to announce at the beginning of each year that the Bushehr light water nuclear reactor that Russia is constructing will be starting operations by mid-year, and to then postpone that to the end of the year, or early in the following year. Even so, the reactor has not yet become operational.
There has also been much talk about Russia selling an air defense system called S-300 to Iran. The Russians have dazzled Iran's military with the capabilities of the S-300 system. The capabilities are indeed very significant, to the extent that they have prompted the United States to issue a warning about their sale to Iran. The prospect of the sale has also generated much concern in Israel. Yet, after nearly a decade of dazzling, no sale has been finalized and no system has been delivered to Iran.
The reasons are twofold. Russia treats Iran as a winning card in its relations with the United States. The fact that anti-American hardliners are in power in Iran is to Russia's advantage. First, because it keeps the U.S. influence in Iran, if any at all, minimal. Second, it forces the United States to focus its attention on Iran, and less elsewhere. At the same time, by not completing the Bushehr reactor and promising to sell it the S-300 system, but not actually going through with the sale, Russia keeps the hardliners in Iran in need. The Iranian public and the reformist-democratic groups in Iran in particular, also see this, which explains their anger at Russia.
China, on the other hand, has a long history of supporting despots around the world, so long as doing so protects and expands its interests. Iran is no different in that respect for it. In Africa, for example, China supports Robert Mugabe's regime in Zimbabwe and the Omar Al-Bashir's in Sudan, despite all the calamities there. In East Asia, China supported the bloody Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia who murdered 2 million Cambodians; and it supports North Korea.
Iran's natural resources, large population, and strategic position are all important to China. China imports about 700,000 barrels of oil a day from Iran. Chinese companies are partners of Iran's National Iranian Oil Company in the first and second phases of the development of Yadavaran, the giant Iranian oil field, which contains 17 billion barrels of oil. China is supposed to invest up to $70 billion in the project. China has also signed another agreement to develop a medium-size oil field, the North Azadegan, which is north of the giant Azadegan oil field with $34 billion barrels of oil.
In June, the China National Petroleum Company signed an agreement with Iran to replace the French company, Total, and participate in the Phase 11 of the development of the giant South Pars field in the Persian Gulf, which contains 8% of world's total natural gas reserves. Iran and Pakistan have agreed to construct a pipeline that would export Iran's natural gas to Pakistan, and there has been talk of continuing the pipeline to China.
China is important to Iran's hardliners for another reason. The United States and its allies have threatened Iran with tough sanctions if it does not respond positively to their overture regarding Iran's nuclear program. A September deadline has been set for Iran's official response. High on the sanctions list is gasoline, as Iran must import up to 40% of its gasoline consumption because it lacks the necessary refining capacity. On July 13, Iran's Ministry of Oil announced that China had agreed to invest up to $40 billion in Iran's oil refining industry (the announcement is yet to be confirmed by China).
According to the announcement, China will construct the new Hormoz refinery in southern Iran, which will be able to produce 300,000 bbl/day of gasoline. China is also supposed to modernize Iran's old Abadan refinery on the shores of Persian Gulf in order to increase it capacity, which at some point was the world's largest refinery. Given China's large investment in Iran's energy sector, it is likely that it will veto any United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution against Iran calling for tough sanctions, particularly in the oil and natural gas sector.
Iran's large population provides China with a large market in which to dump its low-quality products. Many companies linked with the IRGC import cheap, low-quality Chinese products. The IRGC uses more than 60 seaports and airports under its control, outside the official government control, to carry this out, raking in huge profits. Many Iranian businesses suffer as a result, because such imports have bankrupted the local industries that produce the same type of products with higher quality and at a higher cost.
China has also apparently been helpful to Iran's hardliners in yet another way. After the first of the UNSC Resolutions against Iran was issued, Iran began withdrawing its foreign currency reserves from European banks, fearing that it would be frozen by the European Union. A significant portion of the currency reserves appear to have been transferred to Chinese banks, outside the reach of the U.S. Treasury Department and the European Union.
Iran's hardliners appear to be looking up to the Chinese and Russians in other ways too.
The show trials of the reformist leaders and their supporters, which began on Saturday, resemble the Chinese show trials during the Cultural Revolution in the mid 1960s. The way the reformist leaders were treated in jail, then paraded in court "to confess," resemble what happened to many Chinese political leaders, including Deng Xiaping (who went on to became China's "Paramount" leader). Note that Iran had its own Cultural Revolution, which began in 1980 with the closure of all the universities. (In fact, Several sources in Tehran have told the author that they believe that China has provided training for Iran's intelligence agents.)
The trials are of course also reminiscant of what happened to the leaders and politicians of the Soviet Union, such as Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin (1888-1938), during the Great Purge of Joseph Stalin and the show trials of 1936.
The wrath of Iranians toward Russia and China are rooted in these factors. The Iranian people recognize that at this point in time, it is Russia and China that give Ahmadinejad and the hardliners support and comfort, not the United States. It is the author's hope that the Obama administration will not do anything counterproductive or foolish, such as imposing new sanctions on Iran, or giving the green light to Israel to attack Iran, because it will destroy the good will of the Iranian people toward the United States, which may already be on a downward spiral. In a YouTube video circulating on the Web today, the White House spokesman says that the U.S. accepts Ahmadinejad as its elected leader. That will surely disappoint and anger the majority of Iranian people.
But, then again, perhaps no one should really expect the United States to change its strategic view, which looks at Iran, as it has over the last 60 years, as the prize in the Middle East, which means the same old worn out and failed policies, which the president seems determined to follow -- albeit, with some smiles and grins this time.
Copyright (c) 2009 Tehran Bureau