Russia looks to Iran for lessons of life under long-term sanctions

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Freelance Russian journalist Alexey Pivovarov wondered what life might be like under years of economic sanctions. So he went to Iran to find out.

He found sky-high inflation, a bewildering system of multiple exchange rates, an expansive black market, and entrepreneurs developing apps and alternatives for almost everything. The result 80-minute episode for his Russian YouTube channelRedaktsiya, published last month, racking up over 8.3 million views.

It’s not hard to see why the Russians are interested: in a matter of months, Russia has overtaken Iran as the country under the most sanctions. Moscow appears to be on track to retain that title barring a dramatic change in its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

“The question is not whether you can survive long under the sanctions. Of course we can! Pivovarov told his Russian-speaking audience. “The main question is, ‘what for?'”

What are economic sanctions and how did they become Washington’s foreign policy tool of choice?

Iran offers a cautious case study of what happens when sanctions become a long-standing aspect of ordinary people’s lives.

There are, as Pivovarov notes at the start of his show, few “direct parallels” between the two countries. Russia is a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a producer of wheat and oil of global importance, and has many allies, or at least partners, in the countries of the South, a said Ellie Geranmayeh, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa. programs of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The geopolitics of the sanctions against Russia is very different from that of Iran, which I think makes it more difficult in terms of application on a global scale.

Tehran, to some extent, has been on Western blacklists for nearly 45 years. Former President Donald Trump stepped up US sanctions on Tehran after it left the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. Nonetheless, Iran – along with its sanctions comrades in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Venezuela – built a well-stocked toolbox to break out.

There is a certain history of mistrust between Tehran and Moscow – but common ground is developing. The two discussed the exchange of oil and gas supplies, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak told Russian state television on Wednesday during a visit to Iran, Reuters reported. “Iran has lived [under sanctions] for years, and we discussed the Iranian experience.

In late March, Russia’s transport minister said Moscow was “studying the case of Iran” to gain insight into the maintenance of its fleet of foreign planes, Russian media TASS reported. The following week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian media that Moscow and Tehran could work together to circumvent Western restrictions. In early May, Iran’s Auto Parts Union said a Russian automaker had reached out.

The real evasion of sanction, thought, takes place under the radar. Governments and their cronies set up front companies to obtain and trade goods, use criminal groups as intermediaries and money launderers, and transfer embargoed oil off the grid, said Richard Nephew, who left his post in January. US Special Envoy for Iran. .

Iran has perfected the art: tankers meet on the high seas, where other countries are loath to intervene, turn off their tracking radar, transfer Iranian oil and cover their tracks. In early May, Iran said it had doubled its oil exports since August. As one Iranian told Pivovarov, “it has become more difficult” for him since Trump imposed his maximalist policies, but “the sanctions introduced have become a matter for many people”. Throughout this time, Iran has pursued its repressive policy and expanded its nuclear program.

How isolated is Russia really?

Gray and black markets already abound in Russia, although Russian energy still has many legal routes to market. Despite Washington’s efforts, major countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East will not join in Western repression.

But the model is in place, if Russia needs it. An estimated 8% of tankers worldwide carry illicit oil, mostly from Iran and Venezuela, said Cormac McGarry, a maritime analyst at global consultancy Control Risks. “History tells us that [Russia] will probably bend and find ways around these sanctions and learn to live with them,” he said. “Iran is a perfect example of that.”

Some in Washington see the flourishing of illicit activities and the widespread refusal to capitulate as a sign that the sanctions are not strong enough or enforced enough.. Others say it’s proof that stacks of sanctions don’t force a country to change, as intended.

Washington “should never grant clemency hoping that rogue states will mend their ways,” the Wall Street Journal wrote recently.

Others argue that the avoidability of long-term sanctions reflects how “stubborn autocracies – especially those rich in energy reserves and with allies ready to give them economic lifelines in times of crisis – cannot be disciplined by economic sanctions,” as Iranian journalist Kourosh Ziabari wrote. in the journal Foreign Policy.

Much remains at stake for Iran and Russia in the coming months as negotiators consider a return to the nuclear deal and a path to peace in Ukraine.

Negotiators were on the verge of reviving the Iran nuclear deal when in March Moscow launched a reaction: it demanded that US sanctions relief be extended to Russia’s future trade relations with Iran. . Negotiations, for a number of reasons, have now stalled.

Iranians are defying arrest and worse, protesting inflation and rising prices. Russia, meanwhile, must learn to live with sanctions if it does not acquiesce to demands to end its invasion and agree to an “irreversible” peace process with Ukraine. In the shorter term, Russia’s middle and poor class will feel the heat.

Adlan Margoev, a Russian expert on Iran, told Pivovarov he fears Russia under sanctions is losing its “creative class” – just as Iran has done in waves of emigration since then. 1979.

“Then the national economy will suffer quite badly, which happened with Iran,” he said.

Annabelle Chapman in Paris contributed to this report.

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