Sanctions strengthen Tehran's resolve

By Glenn Ignazio, CEO of The Erinnyes Group - 07/01/10 11:53 AM ET

The U.N. Security Council this month voted to pass sanctions against Iran, the fourth round of sanctions since 2006 designed to limit Tehran’s nuclear program. President Obama has called these latest sanctions "the toughest sanctions ever faced by the Iranian government." However, the sanctions won’t end Iran's efforts to enrich uranium, nor will they impede the Islamic republic’s efforts at regional hegemony.

The new sanctions, combined with additional U.S. and EU measures, have only served to strengthen hardliners in Tehran. Iran’s Foreign Minister Ramin Mehmanparast defiantly proclaimed at a news conference that “sanctions will not stop Iran’s nuclear work” and will “make us more decisive to become self-sufficient.” When it comes to digging in their heels regarding sanctions, we should take the Iranians at their word.

For decades now, despite pressure from the international community, the Iranian government has shown its steely resolve to circumvent sanctions and to conduct foreign commerce with countries unencumbered by U.N. resolutions. The latest sanctions aimed at stopping members of the U.N. family of nations from transferring arms to Iran call for increased attention paid to Iran's overseas banking, adding more blacklisted companies, and authorizing searches of suspected ships bound for Iran.

Most recently, separate U.S. efforts that go beyond the U.N. sanctions have focused on targeting, among other things, exports of gasoline and other refined petroleum products to Iran. But, there are a whole host of countries, most notably China, willing to step up their shipments of gasoline to Iran, taking the place of Western companies forced out of Iran by existing sanctions.

Iranian sanctions cannot be effective when there are major cracks in the enforcement of the international community’s intent. A case in point is Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), located just 50 miles from Iran across the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world's oil passes. Less known than the wealthy and politically powerful emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, RAK is one of seven emirates that constitute the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Reports indicate RAK has become a gateway and transshipment point to move components used to support Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Specifically, Tehran is moving contraband through the RAK Free Trade Zone where more than 600 RAK based Iranian-connected businesses operate. Through these financial ties, Iran has gained a strong foothold in RAK. In October, the head of the Canada Border Services Agency's Counter Proliferation Section told Canada's National Post that RAK’s port is “actually leased by the Iranian government and staffed by Iranian customs.” While nominally in the UAE, Iran directly influences operations at Port Saqr, RAK’s large port located directly across from the large Iranian naval base at Bandar-e-Abbas.

What is relatively unknown is that Iran has a powerful leverage point when it comes to the UAE's Tunb islands which Iran seized from RAK in 1971. The Erinnyes Group analyzed open-source imagery and discovered the installation of heavy artillery emplacements and an airstrip on the Lesser Tunb Island. These platforms are capable of hitting vessels traveling through the major inbound and outbound shipping lanes of the Arabian Gulf. The range of the observed guns would not have the capability of reaching land but could be used for maritime strikes. Additional observations include the presence of cement pads, which are potential precursors to missile platforms.

The UAE’s foreign minister has rightfully described the situation with the Lesser Tunb Island as a “shameful occupation” rather than a “misunderstanding," which is how Iran prefers to describe its illegal occupation of the islands. The UAE has a stronger position with the international community against the occupation now that there is a presence of Iranian weapon systems on UAE-contested territory.

Anyone who seriously believes Iran has met its match in the form of U.N. and U.S. sanctions should look at recent history. In its more than 30 years as an Islamic republic, Iran has faced down much more aggressive diplomatic and economic pressures such as during the Iran-Iraq War. The latest impotent sanctions against Iran don’t have a prayer of having the desired impact on Iranian nuclear ambitions. Yet, they may have the geostrategic consequence of heating up the international community’s confrontation with Iran in the Arabian Gulf. The question is: With impending sanctions, will Iran use the Tunb Islands as a threat to international commerce?

Glenn Ignazio is CEO of The Erinnyes Group, an international services company that provides internal defense planning, policy and technology advisors, full-spectrum threat and vulnerability assessments, anti-terrorism and counter-proliferation solutions.