Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What Putin Hopes to Gain from Iran

Yuri Zarakhovich, Time:
Moscow seeks cash and cachet from its interventions in the nuclear crisis. But it may end up isolated, unpaid and under threat. READ MORE

Monday's news that Iran has postponed Moscow talks, scheduled to start Thursday, on having its uranium enriched in Russia, and has instead resumed its own enrichment activities, was hardly stunning — except, perhaps, to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin had expected a cash windfall from Iran for the Russia-supplied nuclear capacity; the laurels of a global power-broker for defusing the Iranian nuclear crisis; and the praise of his increasingly nostalgic citizens for restoring the lost empire's glory.

Instead, he looks hapless before the specter of a nuclear-armed militant clerical regime that looms beneath the veil of a peaceful nuclear energy project. Putin's massive supplies of conventional weapons to Iran, including air defense missiles and armor, have strengthened that specter — much to Russia's own peril.

For months, Russia and China have been stalling the West's efforts to refer Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. Last week, Russia finally backed an IAEA resolution to do so, only upon the condition that the Council doesn't take up the issue until March. Meanwhile, pundits believe, Putin had hoped to defuse the crisis by persuading Iran to shift its uranium-enrichment to Russia, which would deny it the ability to use such facilities on its own soil to produce weapons-grade material.

From his own experience, Putin should have known better: Back in 2000, the Russian president had told a G-8 summit in Japan that he had convinced North Korean leader Kim Jong Il to abandon his missile program. Sounded good, until Kim explained he was joking. This time, Putin seems to be the butt of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's practical joke.

Putin's policies were best summed up last Saturday by Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri commenting on Putin's pledge last week to invite the radical Palestinian group to Moscow: "It will represent a division in the Western position led by the U.S."

"A division in the Western position" helped fuel Saddam Hussein's defiance over the years, finally leading to war. In the long run, Putin's policies will do Hamas or Iran no better than they did Saddam, but they do risk badly hurting Russia.

The regime seems incapable of having long-term strategies. And its short term tactics are driven by cash, whether it be in jailing the oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky and taking over his billions, or endorsing Iran's nuclear ambitions. Russia's projected income from just supplying seven nuclear reactors to Iran runs into $10 billion — and way more for maintenance, fueling, etc.

From 1990 through 1996, Russia supplied over $5 billion worth arms to Iran. Then, Russia heeded a U.S. request to stop military supplies, but resumed them in 2000, just as Putin became president. Last October, Moscow and Tehran signed a deal on military supplies worth $300 million annually. Russia will also supply $700 million worth of surface-to-air missiles. The Iranian arms market now promises Russia some $10 billion over next several years.

These tantalizing riches risk falling into the same chasm, however, as the unpaid billions owed to Russia by Saddam Hussein's regime, and other Moscow-backed rogue regimes. Russia risks ending up unpaid, friendless — and facing a volatile nuclear neighbor, connected to terrorist groups and armed with Russian weapons, right on her unstable southern border. Some return to glory, indeed.