Russia "Nyet!" and China "Bu Shi!" to Tougher Iran Sanctions

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Iran's anti-democratic and repressive regime is a member of a fraternal club of other like-minded anti-democratic and repressive regimes which include Russia and China. They do stick together. And friends they are indeed!

In one bad week for us good guys, both Russia and China brushed aside diplomatic entreaties from the Obama administration and in a one-two punch rejected calls for tougher economic sanctions to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons development program.

Despite noble efforts to downplay Russia's "nyet", Secretary of State Clinton left Moscow empty-handed after her meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov in her quest for a more united front against Iran's nuclear ambitions. And just to make sure Washington got the message Premier Putin (just coincidentally in Beijing for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Council) made sure Mrs. Clinton was sent a reminder who really pushes the "reset" button. Putin took the ol' proverbial Russian boot off his foot and pounded it for good measure... "It's premature" to threaten sanctions against Tehran," Putin stated flatly.

And Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao followed Putin with a "Bu Shi" ("nyet" in Mandarin) when he extolled China's growing energy and trade ties to Iran to a visiting Iranian Vice President. More "Middle Kingdom" diplomatic subtelty for sure, but the message was just the same -- don't expect China to turn the economic screws on Ahmadinejad's nuclear aspirations.

Frankly, I am puzzled by Russia's and China's calculations.

At a time when both Russia and China are trying to readjust their diplomatic bearings with Washington (Obama is about to make his first visit to Beijing), why not join the West for a while in toughening sanctions against Tehran to forestall a possible military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? There is a chance (maybe not a great chance, but a chance nonetheless) that Iran's leaders are more likely to seek a diplomatic solution knowing that they face international approbation against their illicit nuclear program and that they must now deal with a united Security Council lined up against them even if universal economic sanctions have a Swiss cheese quality to them.

Given the stakes and sense of urgency, one may conclude the Russians and Chinese foolishly prefer a military showdown between the West and Iran than a diplomatic solution.

And to what purpose? Surely a nuclear-armed Iran will destabilize the entire Middle East.

Yes, tougher economic sanctions would inflict more misery on Iran's population. But that may put more pressure on a regime already deemed illegitimate by millions of Iranians.

It's not that tougher economic sanctions themselves will humble the mullahs. Iran has mastered the art of evading U.S. sanctions through sophisticated third country smuggling and the like. However, eventually stricter sanctions will take their toll on Iran's ruling elite -- making it more difficult for the Revolutionary Guards to maintain their income and raising the cost of doing business even on the black market of sanctions busters. And there is nothing that will anger Iran's population more than being further isolated internationally because of the destructive policies of its rulers.

And what are we really talking about here? A year or two of reducing trade with Iran until the full effects of universal sanctions have a possible intended effect? If China is so concerned about losing its access to Iran's crude oil supplies, surely something can be done to assuage Beijing that it will not run out of oil. And as for Russia, the Kremlin will have a helluva time trading with Iran for many months to come if Iran's transportation and military infrastructure are taken down in an attack. And Russia's two way trade with Iran is a pittance (less than $3 billion) when compared to China's two way trade with Iran ($21 billion).

In fact, the dirty little secret about Iran's trade ties is that while China is Iran's largest trading partner, in rank order, the next largest trading partners are Japan, Turkey, South Korea, Italy and Germany -- hmmmm -- all allies of the U.S. Russia is not even in the top 5! What is Washington, Paris and London going to do about these offenders of a potential diplomatic solution?

Although Iran has strained to show more flexibility when cornered by irrefutable evidence of cheating when its secret Qum nuclear facility was uncovered, there is no evidence that it has completely ceased its uranium enrichment program. And nothing that it offered in Geneva a few weeks ago suggests otherwise.

The United States, Great Britain and France have decreed a December deadline to Iran or it will face a new set of economic sanctions. But without Russia and China helping to close the economic noose around it, Iran probably will calculate that the price for defying the West is worth the cost -- unless a credible military option is on the table.

But even the possibility of a military confrontation may not dissuade Tehran given the regime's view that an attack on Iran may have the unintended effect of uniting the Iranian people behind their discredited rulers even if it means losing its nuclear facilities (albeit temporarily). I can just hear those demonstrators back on the streets of Tehran yelling "Death to the Great Satan!" instead of "Down with the Dictator!" A conundum indeed!