Interview with Theo Nencini – The Ukrainian War and Iranian Geopolitics – realised on 21/06/2022

Théo Nencini is a doctoral researcher at the Université Grenoble Alpes and the Catholic Institute of Paris. His research focuses on the dynamics of integration and the reshaping of inter-state balances in the Middle East, Central and South Asia. He devotes his thesis to the study of Iran’s resilience to the prism of rapprochement with China. He published in April 2021 at the Harmattan, Shiite Iraq Speaks Persian – Islamism, Militias, Iranian Networks. Theo Nencini also organized a day of study on the geopolitics of Iran (March 17, 2022), in collaboration with the Catholic Institute of Paris, and intervenes in the framework of symposia and seminars on issues related to the external action of the Islamic Republic of Iran (influence operations, political-religious levers of action, contribution to the militia proliferation) and the Chinese expansion in the Middle East.

Clélia Frouté (C.F) : In an interview for IRIS’s Asia Focus #168 last October, you said that the Sino-Iranian agreement “could help build a Moscow-Tehran-Islamabad-Beijing consensus on the fate of Afghanistan, which could “strengthen Iran’s influence in the regionand “give its regime the capacity to cope with Western pressures in the negotiations on the nuclear issue. In what context could this consensus be achieved? Could you explain to us how the Sino-Iranian agreement could enable Iran to acquire a capacity to face Western pressures in the negotiations on the nuclear issue? What role would China play in that process? What role would Russia play?

Theo Nencini (T.N) : The use of the term “consensusis no coincidence here, as these countries have long advocated “non-alignment” in international relations. This is particularly the case for China, but also for Iran, Pakistan, Russia and, to a lesser extent, Türkiye, a member of NATO, which takes at least an ambivalent foreign policy stance. 

There are connivances of variable geometry between these countries, which evolve according to the contexts and geopolitical conjunctions with which they are confronted. In a way, and in the face of short-term issues and logics, they share common interests, convergences of interests. These countries are described by Thomas Gomart, in his book Invisible Wars (Tallandier, 2021), as “disruptive of the international order: they call into question the international order as it is established, unilaterally centered on the United States and, more generally, of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. On this basis, the resulting consensus has been forged on contextual issues, such as the Afghan crisis, the repeated crises in the Middle East, whether in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, etc. This consensus is crystallized on a common antinomy to the American monopoly on international governance. And it is for this reason that these countries advocate a multipolar configuration of the international order.

In terms of Iran and the “look to the eastpolicy, which I prefer to call “asianization, China is in some ways allowing it to free itself from financial and diplomatic pressure through various means. And Iran regains some oxygen by looking to the east. Not really because of China’s ability to invest in the real economy, because although they signed their “global strategic partnershipin March 2021, China still invests very little in Iran. The agreement, when you read it, is mostly in the form of declarations of intent. On the other hand, this dynamic above all allows Iran to begin to emancipate itself from its isolation and from its situation of diplomatic ostracization, notably through bilateral partnerships and their strengthening. This is the case with Beijing, but also with Moscow; although with Russia, we are dealing with a different configuration because of a historical passive with Iran which implies a deep distrust. And although this mistrust also exists with China, Tehran and Beijing are well aware that as far as regional geopolitics are concerned, they have an interest in reinvigorating the bilateral dialogue. We can also see that the Iranians have been re-engaging in talks with the Saudis in Baghdad since spring 2021. We could deduce from these new orientations that Iran benefits from a “breath of fresh air” in terms of diplomacy.

Currently, we could see a configuration in which the United States and China are two “suns” trying to “attract planets” to increase their positioning in the context of the strategic rivalry between them. The Ukrainian crisis is catalyzing this process. And Russia, in this context, seems to “open the way”, as it is the power that moves the lines, notably by taking the “responsibility” to intervene in Syria, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, or in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the Nagorno Karabagh. China is not yet in that position. They are taking their time and being strategic in their patience. 

C.F : Could we thus assume that China, seeing the pawns that Russia poses, and not opposing it, even almost by aligning itself with this strategy, is certainly showing hindsight and patience, but at the same time, counts on Russia to advance its own pawns?

T.N : In a way, it is true. But what interests Beijing above all is to observe how the Westerners react to the Russian destabilization. They analyse the course and consequences of sanctions and embargoes. They take the “pulse of the situation”. When we want to understand China’s behaviour, we have to take into account Beijing’s perceptions. Chinese interests are going in a direction that will challenge those of the United States, but China does not want a direct and open confrontation with the Americans, because the Chinese know very well that, militarily, they are not yet the weight. Moreover, the Americans, still today, secure the energy supplies that pass through the Strait of Ormuz, the Arabian Sea and the Strait of Malacca, even if China gradually acquires an important position in this space through its port infrastructures, what is called the strategy of the “pearl necklace”. So, for the moment, Beijing has no interest in questioning this situation. We see that it is the Russians who are accelerating the trend towards an openly frontal confrontation strategy.

C.F : The negotiations on the Iranian nuclear power resumed on November 29, 2021, but on March 11, the negotiations were suspended by the Russian side against the backdrop of the Ukrainian war and sanctions. How does the Ukrainian crisis change Iran’s and Russia’s positions on the Vienna JCPOA negotiations? Have they become the stage for strengthening pre-existing alliances?

T.N : The negotiations were interrupted for about 10 days in early March 2022 because the Russians made a request to protect their economic relations with Iran, which the Americans did not oppose. In reality, the negotiations are no longer stalling on this specific issue. The Ukrainian crisis does not fundamentally change the positions of Iran and Russia on the JCPOA. For Iran, the Vienna talks are a way to negotiate to attract foreign investment again, and to diplomatically rehabilitate the country on the international stage. And Russia needs an “active” Iran, as it is a gateway to the warm seas for Moscow. As on the Black Sea side, Türkiye – as well as on a smaller scale Syria – guarantees at least this southern access to Russia. Iran could also, within the framework of the International North-South Corridor (INSTC), increase its strategic weight for Russia. The INSTC is supposed to link India to Russia through Iran, and trilateral talks have resumed in recent months. It is a second major transnational infrastructure project that is needed in Eurasia with the Chinese BIS, which can contribute to Russia’s “extra-western” expansion. Thus, Russia – and China as well – needs the nuclear agreement to succeed, because this would allow Iran to be reintegrated into this process, and above all, to “regulate its behaviour”. This is what the JCPOA represents for Russia and China!

And it is not the negotiations in Vienna that will be the scene of a strengthening of alliances. What we see are mostly very fluid connivances that will evolve according to the stakes. This is an approach that Western countries find difficult to grasp because they are accustomed to reasoning with block logic, including in the face of new situations, what we can still see in the context of the enlargement of NATO or the European Union recently. It seems to me that we have to learn how these countries look at these issues, and in this case, on the Iranian side, it should be noted that there is a feeling of being in a position of strength because the Iranians are well prepared for a failure of the agreements in Vienna which they will not have to suffer in terms of public communication. 

C.F : Recently, Iran marked a break in these negotiations, notably with the withdrawal of IAEA surveillance equipment. Do you think Russia had a role to play in this Iranian move? Is this the sign of a new emancipation of the East-oriented bloc vis-à-vis Western pressures?

T.N : It is unlikely that Russia had a role to play in closing some of the surveillance cameras in Iran’s nuclear facilities. I think this is a way for Iran to raise the stakes and to remind people that if there is no agreement, Iran will inevitably move closer to the nuclear threshold. More than a new emancipation, I think it is above all a way for Iran to send a signal to the American side and to the Europeans as well, although the latter do not weigh much at the moment in the negotiations in Vienna. Iran’s last-minute request to have the Revolutionary Guard Corps removed from the United States’ Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) list is also consistent with this logic. We are dealing here more with a process of negotiation than with emancipation.

C.F : Is there a possibility that the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), as mentioned by the Belarusian Minister of Defense at the meeting of Defence Ministers of the CSTO member countries last May, eventually extends to many countries around it, including Iran and China?

T.N : It is rather the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that has the wind in its sails because the CSTO is a Russo-centered organization and Russia does not have the financial leverage to make it a true supranational organization like the SCO. China is the ascending power. This type of declaration reflects the dynamics confirming that Russia, like China, and with them all the countries of Eurasia, want to build a supranational security and political infrastructure. 

But it is important to stress that they do not want to make it an “Asian Union”. They do not want to delegate to a supranational entity sovereign powers that are a matter of state sovereignty. Such an organization would therefore remain state-run, in the form of discussion forums, for example. 

Thus, rather than China and Iran becoming members of the CSTO, it is more likely that the SCO will strengthen. In fact, Iran just became a member in September 2021. This organization will probably strengthen its skills, which would allow the Chinese to project their power in all member countries, whether at the political, economic or technological level.

C.F : Regional security, whether in the concerns of member countries of the CSTO, such as China and Iran, seems in the speeches to focus on the Afghan issue. Do you think that the war in Ukraine could become an acceleration factor to justify real regional security cooperation measures? 

T.N : The Afghan issue does not seem to me to be a significant catalyst for security concerns, especially since in reality there is no longer a security crisis in Afghanistan, but rather a worrying humanitarian issue and a risk of famine. The current situation in Afghanistan, in my view, is less of a rupture than a symptom, much like the crisis in Ukraine. A posteriori, we may realize that configurations have changed, but in my opinion this Afghan issue is a matter of pre-existing tendencies. The crisis in Ukraine can lead these countries to set up platforms, discussion forums, within the framework of the CSTO or the SCO for example, to resolve regional security issues. But the crisis in Ukraine is above all an opportunity for them to observe how the West reacts to a destabilization of this magnitude. If the Afghan issue is indeed a concern for the CSTO member countries, such as China and Iran, they will simply try to “deal with it”. Of course, they still do not recognize the Taliban government, but Chinese and Iranian visits to Kabul are organized without difficulty and we also see that they are working together to ensure that the situation stabilizes.

C.F : Whether in the context of the CSTO or the SCO, the discourse tends to present these organizations as a form of counterweight to the “western bloc”. The expressed objectives are to go “towards the establishment of a new democratic, just and rational international political and economic order” (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the great economic potential of the East – French IRNA). The Ukrainian crisis seems to have crystallized two camps of opinion, on the one hand the Westerners, on the other hand the powers marginalized for a long time and expressing the desire to balance forces and relations in the world, in economic as well as security terms. Do you think that this Ukrainian crisis, through these alliances increasingly reinforced by treaties and international organizations, can become the factor of a real new rebalancing of the world political and economic order? Or is it a decoy?

T.N : These powers are effectively marginalized by Westerners and not by other “countries of the South”. There is a real desire to ostracize the countries you are referring to, from NATO, Japan, South Korea, or Australia, although we need to qualify Japan and South Korea. I think that the Ukrainian crisis is primarily accelerating and reinforcing certain trends. In particular, it allows China to observe the recomposition of geopolitical balances following this destabilization, but also to witness the emergence of new instruments. Indeed, the sanctions against Russia, as imposed, give way to an unprecedented configuration. Russia is a country that has significant systemic weight and holds most of the natural resources. So there is a need for rebalancing that is currently under way. And this trend can be accelerated by the Ukrainian crisis. 

But these trends have been going on for one to two decades, so it’s not a decoy. Above all, it is a fundamentally critical issue for Western countries, but it is not perceived in the same way by marginalized countries and powers. What is currently being played allows them to look towards the future. The partial exclusion of Russia from international financial networks will certainly accelerate a tendency to dedollarisation and the strong desire to emancipate from the dollar-centric financial system.

C.F : Precisely, by observing all these trends and what happened following the Ukrainian crisis and the packages of sanctions, including monetary and financial sanctions, is there a possibility that, on the part of Russia, there is a voluntary strategy to provoke the ‘Westerners’? Perhaps they knew that these sanctions would fall, and perhaps there is a deliberate strategy to provoke this acceleration through a violation of international law that would call into question the existing balance?

T.N : My opinion on the question, which remains quite personal, is that it is indeed a way to provoke the Westerners by putting them “back to the wall”. It is understandable that the Russians see the expansion of NATO as a threat. And one can also understand the Russian attitude by virtue of the historical and cultural ties that traditionally unite it with Ukraine. We have to realize that the provinces of eastern Ukraine, like those overlooking the Black Sea, are mostly Russian-speaking. Without justifying this military offensive, my opinion is that Russia’s posture is understandable. But beyond that, I think it’s mostly a way for the Russians to say, “The Black Sea is ours, and we share it with the Turks”. This issue is therefore part of this famous policy of access to warm seas. Vladimir Putin was in Beijing three weeks before the offensive in Ukraine for the opening of the Olympic Winter Games and it would be surprising if, in those discussions with Xi Jinping, he did not mention the possibility of an offensive in Ukraine at that time. 

But, once again, the Ukrainian crisis is an accelerator of trends. We can interpret the situation in Ukraine by the Russians’ willingness to settle this issue and then turn completely to the east. We must always remember that this “big game”, for Westerners as well as for Russia, China and Iran, reflects postures that are the defence of national interests, of strategic interests. Russian foreign policy cannot be understood without its dialectical relationship with domestic political issues, and the same is true for Westerners, who find a conventional enemy they had lost for 30 years.  The West has dealt with terrorism, but Islamic terrorism is not an enemy, it is a method. Terrorism is not a country and it is not an actor. With Russia, he finds a conventional enemy, after a period of ten or fifteen years during which Iran played this role despite himself. 

As part of my thesis, I am beginning to introduce notions of psychology, because we realize that the use of the conventional enemy is a way of resorting to what psychologists call “negative associations”., which disseminate a general perception of the survival of the threatened community from the outside. And the Westerners are putting it into practice by only talking about Russia for about six months, even at the expense of important domestic policy issues in our own countries. And the same practice is being used by countries like Russia, China, or Iran in trying to hide issues that could threaten the stability of different regimes. Whether they are liberal democracies or authoritarian regimes, or even single-party regimes or theocracies, we see the same use of these negative associations and the stimulation of feelings of “collective fear”. 

C.F : Can Russia’s current position lead to a further polarization of tensions in the region, by accentuating the “Western” axes/Sunni monarchies/Israel against Shiite powers (Iran, Syria)/Russia?

T.N : No, because the game is even more complex. While the crisis in Ukraine is contributing to a polarization between the West and some adversaries in the region, traditional alliances are also being disrupted. Gulf monarchies like Israel, which is a great ally of the Americans, are worried about the United States’ intention to reorient its strategic posture towards Asia-Pacific. This explains their ease in their relations with China and the very open dialogue they have been having with Beijing for some time. We also noticed that Imran Khan, still Pakistani Prime Minister at that time, went to visit Vladimir Putin in Moscow on the very day of the offensive in Ukraine. 

So on the contrary, this crisis is making things more complex. These countries know very well that they can no longer rely 100% on the American security umbrella. And the current position of multipolarise (or multilateral) Russia is how to face the challenges. We are thus witnessing a strengthening of the dynamics of bilateral cooperation with Russia, in the case of Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, or of trilateral cooperation as was the case with the Astana agreements between Iran, Turkey and Russia with regard to Syria, or during the “Abraham Accords”. Similarly, we know the will of Iran to contain the Saudis or Emirians, but they start again to discuss with the Iranians in Iraq. 

So I would say that western countries are isolating and shutting down their positions as this crisis gives space to both our partners and our geopolitical adversaries. 

C.F : In the context of the European energy reorientation, we have just learned that a strengthening of energy cooperation between the EU and Israel is emerging. Could such a move have consequences for Iran and Russia, in particular for them to further strengthen their partnerships towards the East, at the risk of losing any hope of cooperation on current issues in the Middle East (JCPOA, Syria, Lebanon, Israel/Palestine)?

T.N : Ursula von der Leyen did go to Israel where significant gas deposits were discovered. But from the stage of exploration and discovery to production, investments that span five, ten or even fifteen years are essential. So we won’t be able to import Israeli gas tomorrow. And the situation is identical to the resources of Iran, which holds the second largest reserves of gas in the world. Infrastructure is non-existent, as are technologies to liquefy gas. In this lies all the complexity of energy geopolitics, similar to that relating to arms contracts that also spread over several decades. 

The fact that Westerners are redirecting their energy supply demand may strengthen Russia’s and Iran’s eastern partnerships but these countries will then find themselves in competition to export gas to China, but also to India or Pakistan, highly populated countries with little or no energy resources. This competition will necessarily affect prices. Prices could thus be decoupled with prices from the “western bloc” and a parallel price system, based more on barter situations, such as debt write-offs, between gas exporters and countries in Asia or the Far East.

In terms of diplomatic consequences, I think that this situation allows regional powers, whether they are the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, to play the intermediary. For example, it seems that ENI, an Italian oil major present in Qatar, has partnered with TotalEnergies and American companies (Exxon Mobil and ConocoPhilipps) to develop the huge Northfield gas field shared between Qatar and Iran. It is the countries straddling this geopolitical divide that has become so ideological that worry. But as far as Israel is concerned, it seems to me more likely that it would not only export its gas to Europe, but also to Egypt and via that country to Africa. 

C.F : Can the Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions against Russian energy supplies serve as leverage for Iran on the sanctions it is facing, and to potentially vary its oil and gas buyers, knowing that the States-United can see this as a way to limit Chinese “tutelage” over Iran? Is there a possibility that the European Union will eventually import Iranian oil and gas?  

T.N : First of all, of course, Iran holds the second largest gas reserve in the world but it is only the third or fourth largest producer because it exports virtually no gas. It is mainly intended for the domestic market for heating during winter periods. If the Iranian gas sector does not receive substantial investments in the next few years to modernize and develop its infrastructure, Iran could again, as it did six or seven years ago, be forced to import gas from neighbouring Turkmenistan. The reason for this is that the gas fields are in the south and the major cities and housing centres are in the north, in Tabriz, Tehran, Isfahan or Machhad. This situation shows to what extent there is no possibility of substitution between gas corridors and gas suppliers. Thus, before the European Union can import gas from Iran, the diplomatic situation would have to normalize today in order to envisage a potential import within five or ten years, provided that the Iranian pipes connect to the Azerbaijani and Turkish pipes, or that Iran put gas pipelines through Iraq and Syria, and then gas liquefaction plants are set up on the Mediterranean coasts to re-export it. This seems unlikely, to say the least. Even today, Iran is trying to export its gas to India and Pakistan. We can mention the IPI project, that is to say the Iran-Pakistan-India project for which Iran built its section of gas pipeline to the border with Pakistan, in Balochistan. But this project is complicated by the absence of sections in Pakistan and by the latter’s tensions with its Indian neighbour. 

Secondly, it can be considered at first sight that with only a few customers to export its gas (Türkiye and Iraq to a lesser extent), Iran is in a relationship of dependence vis-à-visBut we must not lose sight of the fact that it is China that is dependent on these energy supplies. Because the huge Chinese economic industrial machine only works if it is constantly powered by cheap energy, which Iran can supply. And experts predict that China’s energy demand for fossil fuels will explode by 2035-2040 before it gradually stabilizes. So the Chinese tutelage over Iran is not really exercised in terms of energy. Energy continues to play a major role in bilateral trade between the two countries, but Iran wants to diversify its economy. In fact, it seems to me that last year was the first year in the modern history of Iran where non-oil products played such a dominant, if not greater, role in Iran’s foreign trade than oil products.

So it is a political objective of Iran to be able to diversify its customers, but it can’t respond to it as simply because of the elements described above about the complexity for Tehran to export its gas abroad, and particularly the obsolescence of its facilities. Even the Iranian oil wells are so old that the Iranians now have to put gas back in to be able to feed the pressure and bring the oil to the surface. A release of Iranian hydrocarbons on the market would regulate and stabilize prices but it would take a long time for a new gas configuration to take place. Iran also has an oil export capacity of about 500,000 barrels per day, which is estimated to be as high as about 2 million barrels. It would therefore be difficult to reach 3 million barrels as was the case in 2014-2015. In all cases, this is a step out of proportion to what would be required to export gas, which requires substantial infrastructure and technologies to liquefy the gas that few companies have mastered. 

C.F : From a diplomatic point of view, regarding the leverage on sanctions against Iran, could it still change the situation a bit?

T.N : Not at all. And we saw that when the military operations in Ukraine were launched.  Throughout the month of February, there was the impression that the agreement in Vienna was going to be signed from one moment to the next, and from the moment the Russians launched their offensive in Ukraine, everything was called into question. 

I think the Iranian issue is separate from the systemic issue. In the United States, the Iranian issue is primarily a domestic political issue. Biden has been in office for a year and a half and has had the opportunity to put the agreement back on the table. They waited, also because the Iranians wanted to wait for the new administration of Ebrahim Raïssi to take office. After negotiations, an agreement was reached that satisfied just about everyone. But all it took was the crisis in Ukraine to question everything. In my opinion, Biden does not want to weaken too much in the run-up to the mid-term elections in November 2022, knowing that even some democrats in the United States are against normalizing relations with Iran. So there is no causal link between the Ukrainian crisis and the Iranian nuclear negotiations. These are separate issues that have contact points. The Ukrainian crisis has more of an impact in terms of energy than in terms of diplomacy. 

C.F : The Ukrainian crisis and the sanctions against Russia have caused difficulties in the supply, payment and sale of barrels of Iranian oil to the East, especially to China. Can you tell us more about that? 

T.N : The reality is that Iran today exports more oil than it did a year or two ago. If in 2019-2020, these oil exports were officially at zero, we knew that Iran, to export its oil to China, used transfer techniques called “ship to ship transfer”. In other words, the Iranians were transferring oil at sea from one tanker to another and did not declare that they were exporting to China, or they were passing through Malaysia to re-export their oil to China. I don’t think the Ukrainian crisis is something that would prevent Iran from exporting its oil. We also know that the Chinese are starting to buy their Iranian oil in yuan and even going through barter procedures: Iran sells oil to China in exchange for debt relief. 

C.F : Could the potential free trade agreement between Iran and the Eurasian Economic Union (EUE) mentioned by the Belarusian President last May be successful? And what are the potential benefits to Iran? Could they be involved in stabilizing the region?

T.N : Even if Iran would benefit undeniably, the difficulties stem from the fact that a free trade agreement with Iran would be very complicated to set up at the technical level. Iran is multiplying meetings in this direction of regional economic integration and is showing significant diplomatic activism vis-à-vis the countries of Central Asia. The President of Kazakhstan, Kassim Jomart Tokaev, was in Tehran on June 19, for example, and there have been meetings with Uzbekistan, as well as ongoing projects with Tajikistan. But establishing a free trade area is going to take time. We’re also essentially seeing declarations of intent. Perhaps the decoupling of the international order between the two great “suns” that are China and the United States could indeed give rise to it, if it is consolidated but nothing is assured in this matter. 

 Moreover, and above all, the countries of the region will need guarantees regarding the Iranian posture. And we must not forget that most of the countries of Central Asia, no matter what we say, maintain sometimes rather important relations with the United States. We can also learn from what is happening in Europe: economic integration creates interdependencies and contributes to political stabilisation but the process is likely to create other negative externalities that we do not immediately realize.

C.F : Do you see these projects as the will of the member countries of the OCS and the UEE to emancipate themselves from a market economy in their view not sufficiently balanced in the reports? 

T.N : The important point is this desire to emancipate from the dollar by boosting the procedures of dedollarisation. But these states want to maintain control over the market economy which can be considered as a necessary step, especially by the Chinese. Since the 1980s, China has opened its country, its industries, and attracted foreign skills, but in recent years, with Xi Jinping, it has begun to close while the communist ideology is put forward. The Chinese say very openly that capitalism was a “stage”, a necessary detour to return better to socialism. So I answer this question in the affirmative and I argue it through the dedollarisation, an attempt that goes through in particular through ad hoc initiatives such as cryptocurrency development projects, whether in China or Iran, where we start talking about e-yuan and e-rial. The Chinese are apparently investing in a mining firm in Iran. Mining industries are developing across the country to take advantage of the low cost of electricity. Cryptocurrency mining uses a lot of electricity. These projects demonstrate or concretize the will of the countries of the SCO and the Eurasian Economic Union to emancipate themselves from this market economy, but above all from this dollarized economy. And that means above all emancipating from the extraterritoriality of American law.

C.F : Do you think that sanctions on Russia can finally benefit the OCS and the UEE, and in the long run, serve the European Union and the United States (Group of Seven)? If so, how and at what levels?

T.N : These sanctions mainly benefit China. I have been working on Iran for several years and I lived in Iran when sanctions were tightened in 2018. The country continues to function roughly normally. There is no doubt that, in recent months, inflation has become much heavier for Iranians, but the sanctions have not achieved their political objectives at all. On the contrary. This is one of the hypotheses of my research project. Just look at what happened in Iraq in the 1990s, when there was a total embargo against the country. What did it produce? It brought about a strengthening of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and the population, which was completely impoverished, turned to Islam. Ten years later, the Americans intervened and the fertile soil was already there. The Iraqi population had re-Islamized itself, and it was in that context that we had the geopolitical and denominational divide that we see in the Middle East with the emergence of al Qaeda, ISIS, Shia militias, and so on. In Iran, it’s a similar situation. The sanctions have paradoxically only strengthened the regime, by strengthening the capacity of the Revolutionary Guards, religious foundations, and these huge para-state conglomerates that we never know if they belong to the public, private, or associative sector. The people in charge have increased their economic and therefore political power, and so will Russia. So in the long run, the sanctions serve the interests of the European Union and the United States.

C.F : At a roundtable, “The Oil Market Today and Tomorrowat SPIEF on June 16, 2022, Alexei Miller spoke out against the Bretton Woods-2 system, which he blames for soaring gas prices. In this context, he says that a new formula is needed in the energy market, “Our product, our rules.” It is parallel to sanctions and counter-sanctions responsible for a sterile market. Is Iran positioning itself in the same way?

T.N : Sanctions have already proven to be rather ineffective. Was the goal to impoverish the Iranian middle class? Was the objective to ensure that today, 30% of the Iranian population lives below the poverty line? If that was the objective, they partially achieved it. But in reality, the purpose of sanctions is to bring down the regime, and we are a long way from that. Russia wants to emancipate itself from the totally dollar-based system, and emancipate itself from the extraterritoriality of American law. Iran is positioning itself in the same way.

C.F : Talks between the members of the Group of Seven are underway to possibly form a “counter-OPEC”, of which oil importing countries would be members. Could this have an impact on the position of Iran and Russia in their exports and their position within OPEC+? Wouldn’t that be counterproductive, although the objective is to stabilize the price over time?

NL : The more oil in circulation on the market, the lower the prices. The United States, which is a shale gas and oil producer, needs a price per barrel of at least $70 or $80 a barrel for that to be profitable. So we have to know whether the project is useful or not. Because if this counter-OPEC wants to increase its production and put a little more oil on the market, that might suit some of the importers, but it is not sure that this suits the Americans.

C.F : We can read that the United States, paradoxically, wants to allow Russian oil to be sold in the future without too much embarrassment to China and India. This is totally contrary to what they are currently imposing on the European Union, which is to cut imports from Russia and dependence on Russia.

T.N : Some misguided people might see it as a desire to contain Europe on itself, to put it under the tutelage of the United States. India, Pakistan, Indonesia and China, but also countries in Africa and Brazil, are heavily populated countries that will be even more so in the future, that do not hold a lot of gas, that have no or few hydrocarbon reserves, and will necessarily need energy at a favourable price. And it is not in anyone’s interest to make these countries implode, simply because they are facing serious consequences in terms of climate change that will lead to migration crises and a socially very tense situation. So there has to be caution on the part of producers, importers, and market participants. 

Generally speaking, it is the Opec countries that dictate prices, which seems to satisfy everyone at the moment. The European countries have the capacity to question this American unipolarism or unilateralism. As far as France is concerned, there is traditionally economic competition with the United States, but for about fifteen years, the Western movement has had time to infuse its ideas with the Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay. The Atlanticist movement, or the so-called “neo-conservatives”, are acting in the direction of strengthening the partnership with the United States, even if it means finding itself in a situation of total dependence. But we also see this trend in Italy, for example. I think we should be more careful and understand what our interests are. While the United States is geographically distant, we have sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East as neighbours. And the Slavic world is at our doorstep. This geographical configuration defines the essence of the issues we have to face but that we still have a hard time understanding.

It’s even difficult to do research when you’re looking at areas like Russia or the Middle East, because of the lack of mobility and therefore the lack of access to information to nuance and sharpen the critical thinking. Many, like me, are now faced with great difficulties of displacement and international mobility because we are assimilated to the posture of our States, which maintain a cleavage vis-à-vis these countries. It seems to me that we should be guided by political philosophy to understand what we see, what power is, or how we manage our relations with others. I do not think that we want to confine ourselves to a bipolarism which, in any case, will never be comparable to what it was during the Cold War, since there is now an infinity of interdependencies and interconnections at the international level. Our computers, our phones, and most of the items that are in our homes have been produced in China or the Far East. We are therefore now in a fragile position in the face of new emerging powers and a new geopolitical situation with which we must now deal. In particular, by formulating analyses that can challenge the general doxa, and that are more reflexive and nuanced. 

To go further : 

NENCINI Théo, L’Irak chiite parle persan. Islamisme, milices, réseaux iraniens, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2021.

NENCINI Théo, Enjeux et adaptation de la diplomatie chinoise au Moyen-Orient (entretien réalisé par Emmanuel Lincot), Asia Focus, IRIS, octobre 2021.

KENNEDY Paul, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, New York, Vintage, 1989.

HOURCADE Bernard, Géopolitique de l’Iran. Les défis d’une renaissance, Paris, Armand Colin, 2016.

RAZOUX Pierre, « Quelques clés pour décrypter la politique étrangère iranienne », Hérodote, vol. 169, 2018, p. 1326.

GOMART Thomas, Guerres invisibles, Paris, Tallandier, «Essais» 2021

Previous Article

Iranian cyberspace: a technological fortress with an internal killer — 1/3: The genesis of the Internet in Iran

Next Article

Rakija, between tradition and nationalist sentiment.