Nuclear weapons worries: Is threat of Iran sanctions making Tehran testy with Europe?

On Sunday, the deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards threatened to cut off Europe's oil supply. The exaggerated claim suggests that the West's push for a new round of Iran sanctions, prompted by reports that the country is developing nuclear weapons, may be worrying Tehran.

Georges Gobet/AFP/Newscom
Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi (with scarf) attends a meeting of MEPs at the European Parliament. Rajavi urges the EU to impose sanctions against Irans' Revolutionary Guards. Concerns about nuclear weapons have prompted the EU to consider sanctions, and Iran has responded with threats of economic reprisals.

The West’s drive for tougher sanctions on Iran – and in particular for measures targeting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards – appears to be hitting a nerve in Tehran.

On Sunday, the deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guards, an elite military division with substantial involvement in Iran’s nuclear program, told Iranian war veterans that Iran is capable of making Europe suffer by cutting the flow of energy supplies out of Iran.

“Iran is standing on 50 percent of the world’s energy and, should it so decide, Europe will have to spend the winter in the cold,” Deputy Commander Hossein Salami told his audience, according to the Iranian news agency Fars.

Iran is now capable of hitting any “conspirators” against it with its missiles, Commander Salami also said.

The two claims – the ability to leave Europe shivering in its boots, and to hit any foe with a missile strike – exaggerate Iran’s energy dominance and military capabilities, some Iran experts say. But such claims, not unusual from Tehran, these experts add, also suggest Iran is taking notice of a growing reluctance to do business with it – particularly in Europe – as world powers appear to inch closer to approving a new round of sanctions in the United Nations Security Council.

“The Iranians have a pattern of warning anyone threatening to get tough with them, basically saying, ‘Don’t do this, because there will be consequences,’ ” says Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington. “What’s notable here is that they are singling out Europe,” he adds, “It’s a sure sign Europe is being more activist [about curtailing economic ties to Iran] than it normally is.”

As the United States has pressed the case for tougher sanctions in response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the American focus has shifted from broad to targeted sanctions directed at the nexus between the Revolutionary Guards leadership and the nuclear program. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton originally spoke in terms of “crippling” sanctions against Iran, but that was before last June’s disputed presidential election in Iran.

Since then, Western officials and international financial organizations have noted an increased involvement by Iran’s military – and in particular the Revolutionary Guards – in Iran’s economic activity. At the same time, a stronger focus on Iran’s opposition movement since the June elections has made the idea of broad or “crippling” economic sanctions less appealing

The growing number of public threats from officials of the Revolutionary Guards suggest an increasing alarm over the international impact on Iran’s economy, Mr. Berman says. “It seems they’re discovering that a lot of their relations are far more brittle than they thought they were,” he says.

Last week, Secretary Clinton told members of Congress that she expects a new round of sanctions to be taken up by the UN Security Council over the next four to eight weeks. (For Monitor coverage on congressional moves to sanction Iran, click here.)

One reason Iran may be using its energy card with Europe is that the same strategy appears to have worked with China, which, as a permanent member of the Security Council, could veto any resolution before the body. (For Monitor coverage of China's stance on a new round of Iran sanctions, click here.)

Clinton also told members of Congress that one factor holding up China (which so far has resisted pressure to join the sanctions bandwagon) is its concern over its flow of energy supplies.

On a recent trip through the Persian Gulf, Clinton pressed her hosts to assure China that they would make up any energy shortfall it experienced as a result of disrupted – or purposely reduced – Iranian energy flows, State Department officials say.

Berman says that, while the Bush administration simply told China, “We need your help,” the Obama administration is exhibiting a sensitivity to China’s concerns about the eventual consequences of supporting sanctions.

Any effort to persuade China to go along with another round of international sanctions has to start with the reality that Iran provides China with 12 percent of its energy, according to Berman. “Considering that, and offering some alternative means of addressing [China’s] energy needs,” he adds, “is a prerequisite to any serious discussions with China.”

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