Iran, Brazil, Turkey and the ghost of Lord Palmerston

Lord Palmerston - twice England's prime minister during the middle 1800s - once commented, "England has no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, only permanent interests." Watching the fallout over Brazil's and Turkey's recent diplomatic breakthrough on Iran brings Palmerston's observation to mind: while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was hailing our "friends'" support for tough sanctions aimed at Teheran, much of her supporting cast were busy hedging their bets and deciding that their interests just might lay elsewhere.

True, Russia and China signed on, but their endorsements were filled with ambiguity and diplomatic escape hatches.

As Clinton was dismissing the efforts of Brazil and Turkey, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said his country "expressed its welcome and appreciation for the diplomatic efforts of all parties." A Foreign Ministry spokesman added that the agreement to send 58 percent of Iran's nuclear fuel to Turkey for enrichment "will benefit the process of peacefully resolving the Iran nuclear issue through dialogue and negotiations."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for "urgent consultations with all interested parties, including Iran, to decide what to do next," hardly a call to arms. His First Deputy Prime Minister, Sergi Ivanov, said that while his country was "supportive" of the U.S., it was drawing a "red line" at sanctions that were "suffocating" or would affect ordinary Iranians.

He then added a pinch of Palmerston: "We have a completely different position. We have a trading relationship, and the potential to develop it. We have energy interests, human interests, and tourism."

The Russians also made it clear that they would be unhappy with unilateral sanctions by the U.S. and the European Union. Such unilateral actions would be "of an extraterritorial nature beyond the agreed decision of the international community and contradicting the principle of the rule of international law, enshrined in the UN Charter," according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The U.S. State Department's claim that the "international community" is behind the U.S. is increasingly sounding like whistling past the graveyard.

Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna said the Brazil/Turkey/Iran deal was "a constructive move," and pointed out that India has a "deep desire to have a friendly relationship" with Iran. He also pointed out that "The U.S. has its own foreign policy and India has its own."

The Arab League's General Secretary Amr Moussa said he hoped the agreement would "solve the current problem regarding the Iranian nuclear file."

United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said, "We hope that this and other initiatives may open the door to a negotiated settlement."

France's President Nicholas Sarkozy, normally hawkish on Iran, called the deal a "positive step."

Even the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) Supreme Commander, U.S. Admiral James Stavridis said the fuel swap deal was a "a potentially good development."

This should hardly come as a surprise; just follow the ruble, the yuen, and the franc.

In his visit to Ankara earlier this month, Medvedev said, "Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but genuinely." That was certainly strange talk about a key member of NATO with which Moscow has gone to war in the past.

But with rubles at stake, who worries about history?

Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed 17 agreements worth some $25 billion, including building four nuclear power plants. The two countries also discussed Russian participation in a Black Sea-Mediterranean pipeline that would make Ankara a player in the Central Asia energy game. The Turks also seem to be more favorably disposed toward Moscow's South Stream natural gas pipeline to Europe.

And lastly, the Russian president said he would push to raise bilateral trade from $40 billion a year to $100 billion within five years.

If the U.S. thinks the Russians are going to have a falling out with the Turks over the Iran sanctions, then delusion is the order of the day in Washington.

And China? Brasilia's number one trading partner, which loaned Petrobras $10 billion to develop Brazil's huge South Atlantic subsalt oil deposits? And just signed an agreement with Brasilia to develop a joint defense industry (no doubt lured by the $20-plus billion that Brazil is handing out in defense contracts)? Will China go to the mat for the U.S. over the Iran sanctions? See "order of the day" above.

France appears to be playing the dog that didn't bark. Might Gallic discreetness have anything to do with a $12 billion defense deal with Brazil for 50 helicopters and four Scorpene submarines? Could it be the $10.2 billion Brasilia is shelling out for 36 of France's Rafale fighter jets? The Rafale is very a cute airplane, not terribly fast, that came in third in an open competition with fighters made by Boeing and Saab. But as Rhys Thompson of ISN Security Watch notes, "The Brazilian government reiterated that the final choice of a fighter jet would be based on political and strategic considerations and not primarily guided by technical aspects." In short, we buy your cookies, you be nice to us in return (and maybe lower European Union tariffs for Brazilian agricultural goods).

As more and more countries line up behind the Turkish-Brazilian deal, it looks less and less likely that the Security Council will pass sanctions, in part because the deal is a good one and represents a sea change in international power relations. But also because countries like Russia, China, India, and France are also keeping Lord Palmerston's dictum in mind.

Originally published at Foreign Policy in Focus and reposted with permission of the author.

 

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