China has become Iran's number one trading partner and the two countries have announced plans to more than double their annual bilateral activity to $100bn by 2016
The Iranian conundrum has entered a new phase. From July 1, the European Union banned the sale of protection and indemnity insurance for ships carrying Iranian oil. But will those sanctions dissuade Iran from developing its nuclear facilities? Will they isolate the country? Who can be Iran's allies? Who are the key decision-makers within Iran? Those are key questions for the western policy-makers.
History can provide us with a rare glimpse into the efficacy of sanctions on Iranian trade and the country's economy. After the discovery of Iran's secret uranium enrichment programme in 2002, western companies began to withdraw from Iran and western governments began to ramp up pressure on the Islamic Republic, opening up new opportunities for Chinese firms and diplomats to build economic and strategic ties to Tehran.
By 2007, China had become Iran's number one trading partner. China signed a $20bn agreement, in May 2011, to boost bilateral cooperation in Iran's industrial and mining sectors - and the leaders of the two countries have announced plans to more than double their annual bilateral trade, which is currently around $30–$40bn, to $100bn by 2016. Through its economic cooperation and deal-making with China, including a barter agreement designed to facilitate trade despite sanctions against banks doing business with Iran, the country has blunted the impact of the international sanctions regime on the country.
Iran could survive and it is likely it will survive under the harsh conditions of EU sanctions as well. China benefited more than any western government - the United States included - from those sanctions and now has huge leverage on Iran's policy decisions. It has become Iran's key ally while other potential states-allies such as Russia, India or Brazil are in different positions. Brazil has a long way to go to become a geopolitical actor and confront the US outside the confines of its influence. India, itself engaged in a conflict with Pakistan, will reject any tension with America as it may need US support against Pakistan in the near future - taking into account current glacial relations between America and Pakistan. Not to mention the fact that Pakistan is backed by India's neighbour, China, in the Indo-Pakistani conflict.
Russia is also a fake partner for Iran because first of all it is a fake geopolitical power. Its economy relies solely on energy resources – oil and natural gas. The country lacks advanced technologies for development and is blighted by corruption and an authoritarian regime – which act as a hindrance to any bolstering of the middle class. Moreover, Russia voted for United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 in 2010; prohibiting a wide range of trade and financial transactions with Iran. And it refused to sell the S-300 air defence system to Iran, therefore deepening the gap between the two countries.
That is why China is a shield from western pressures on Iran. Iranian authorities also stress the Sino-Iranian partnership as key to their survival. According to Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi: "Tehran-Beijing ties are strategic and their prospects are bright." Iran could find a geopolitical partner/Asian superpower and could eschew the harsh realities caused by sanctions. Moreover, it did not put a halt to its nuclear program. How to work out the Iranian problem then? Is a joint Israeli-American military attack on Iran a remedy?
Well, it is more likely that such a move will have a counterproductive effect. It will only spur on uranium enrichment and development of nuclear weapons by Iranians, as Israeli and American forces could hardly devastate nuclear and military targets such as the Parchin Military Complex in a short period of time. Military action will also spoil Sino-American relations as China has made huge investments in the Gulf economies and needs stability for its economic benefit and development. Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz, damaging the economy and trade across the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, Iranians have the capability to retaliate against US and Israeli forces - expanding the war through the Middle East by engaging HAMAS, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in the conflict. A scenario the US is keen to avoid. America does not want a new Iraq or Afghanistan.
What is the solution then? Will P5+1 – the US, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Germany - talks with Iran be successful? These discussions seem to be a cat and mouse game. As Iran's foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi stated on April 13 of this year: "Most important, and this cannot be stressed enough, is that dialogue must be seen as a process rather than an event. A house can burn to the ground in minutes but takes a long time to build. Similarly, trust can easily and rapidly be broken, but it takes a long time to build."
And since there is no trust between sides, talks can hardly make any progress in dissuading Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme. To build trust between sides, it is important to figure out who the key decision-makers in the Iranian government are and to reach out to them – in order to work with them directly and exert an influence on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who is the number one decision-maker in Iranian life. Unlike Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there are a lot of rational actors within the Khamenei's team - such as the Larijani brothers, particularly Ali Larijani-incumbent, who is chairman of the Iranian Parliament and the former Secretary of Supreme National Security Council. Ali Larijani is supposed to be a counterbalance to Ahmadinejad's administration and is the supreme leader's 'right hand'. The engagement of such people in direct talks with western diplomats will enhance the opportunity of trusting each other. Moreover, Western diplomats must speak with Iranians and not at Iranians to find ways out of diplomatic morass.
Last but not least, western diplomats often undermine the Iranian society and confuse it with other societies in the Arab world which were and are ill with political virginity. But in the case of Iran, western democracies are dealing with a mature socio-political phenomenon - the Iranian society - with its many advantages, compared with the rest of the Arab world such as female education. Indeed, female education is a key driving force for the democratisation of a country. Actually, though it sounds unusual, Iran is the most likely country to become democratic in future - in the Middle East region - because of the education system and experience in the struggle for democracy. For example, the Green movement in 2009 compared with the Egyptian fake democratic transition or post-Gaddafi Libya.
That is why it is a must to work directly with the Iranian society. The US and Europe can exercise their soft power by way of opening new educational opportunities for Iranian students in America and the EU; strengthening the cultural ties between societies in order to attract Iranian people to want what western diplomats want. That will prepare Iran for a democratic transition and will make it more rational and secure. Confrontation with Iran can no longer be an option and dialogue between societies, and not only governments, is a necessary step on the path to finding a remedy for the Iranian problem. Vahram Ayvazyan is a participant in the Council of Europe's Youth Peace Ambassadors project