Is Belarus the weak link in Iran sanctions?

Article Highlights

  • Amidst the currency crash and increasing economic discord, top Iranian officials no longer say that sanctions are without impact.

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  • The revolving door visits of Iranian delegations to Belarus should raise questions.

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  • The Iranian government claims annual bilateral trade with #Belarus exceeds $100 million and sanctioned Iranian banks continue to operate there.

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  • If Belarus helps #Russia bypass arms embargoes on Syria, it is possible that it might also do so for Iran.

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Over the last six years the international community has imposed an increasing number of sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran over its nuclear program. These sanctions have targeted not only Iran’s nuclear program, but also its military industry. The European Union and the United States have supplemented these sanctions with a variety of additional unilateral measures. The result has been a mixture of defiance and lament inside Iran. Many regime officials declare repeatedly that the regime will resist sanctions, but, amidst the currency crash and increasing economic discord, top officials no longer say that sanctions are without impact.

Against the backdrop of Iranian defiance, both the United States and European Union have sought to convince Russia and China to tighten sanctions on Iran and reduce even licit arms and technology shipments to the Islamic Republic. Tehran and Moscow have inked a contract for the S-300 antiaircraft missile system, but the Russian Federation has repeatedly delayed delivery.

It against the context of Western pressure on Russia to abide by Iran sanctions that the Iran-Belarus economic relationship—the latest manifestation of which is described in the accompanying excerpt—is interesting. Belarus has consistently supported Iran in the face of international suspicion, commending it, for example, for adhering to its international commitments despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and condemning the imposition of European Union sanctions on Iran.

For a relatively small country, Belarus is the destination of many Iranian trade and defense delegations. The most recent delegation was led by Yahya Al-e Eshagh, currently leader of Tehran’s Chamber of Commerce, but during former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s second term (1993-1997) the Minister of Commerce. Eshagh is often the point man on Iranian efforts to convince emerging markets and developing countries to bypass sanctions.

In Belarus he will find fertile ground. Three years ago, Belarus’ state oil company signed a $500 million deal to develop an Iranian oil field, initially weathering American sanctions to do so (some reports suggest that Belarus has suspended work pending a payment dispute). Earlier this year Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi traveled to Minsk to cement further cooperation. The Iranian government claims annual bilateral trade exceeds $100 million. Sanctioned Iranian banks continue to operate in Belarus.

Because Belarus is not only among Russia’s closest allies, but also a major importer of Russian defense equipment, the revolving door visits of Iranian delegations to Belarus should raise questions about why Belarus has become such a frequent destination for Iranian officials and delegations. Normally, Iranian officials’ travel and diplomatic outreach outside its immediate neighborhood falls into one of two categories: The first target of Iranian outreach is to those countries which sit on the United Nations Security Council or the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors, that is, countries for which the Islamic Republic can receive a quid pro quo for any trade or assistance. The second category is military and nuclear trade partners, such as North Korea, Pakistan, and perhaps Venezuela.

Belarus is neither a member of the Security Council nor does it have a vote at the IAEA. This raises the likelihood that Tehran’s outreach to Minsk is motivated by other concerns. Belarusian arms dealing to the Syrian regime suggests Minsk’s willingness to act as a surrogate for Russia in the Middle East. If Belarus helps Russia bypass arms embargoes on one Middle Eastern country, it is possible that it might also do so for Iran. In 2010, a story briefly appeared in Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency describing Iranian military purchases from Belarus, before Iranian authorities ordered the story removed. If Minsk has become a middleman between Moscow and Tehran, Russia might claim that it abides strictly by promises made to American and European diplomats while it can also ensure the Iranian regime can bypass at least some sanctions. Should Belarus help Iran bypass restrictions on arms imports, for example, by shipping Tehran the S-300 system outright or, more likely, providing technology to enable Iran’s indigenous arms industry to replicate the system, it might accelerate Iran’s capabilities or, conversely, hasten an international response to preempt deployment of advanced systems.

Certainly, such a relationship remains in the realm of supposition; the Russian, Belarusian, and Iranian press are not paradigms of freedom and cannot be expected to discuss sanction avoidance openly. Nevertheless, not all relationships are innocent; the Islamic Republic’s developing ties to Belarus certainly bear watching.



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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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