Thursday, April 13, 2006

Iran's Nukes: Russia's Key

Amir Taheri, New York Post:
As the diplomatic maneuvers to pressure Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions continue, the message one hears in policy circles in most capitals is simple: The key is in Moscow. Of all the powers involved in this showdown with the Islamic Republic, only Russia is in a position to tip the balance between a peaceful resolution or war. READ MORE

Russia is building Iran's first and, so far, only nuclear power plant near Bushehr. It could slow or suspend the project pending a diplomatic resolution of the crisis. Such a move could strengthen the hands of those within the Tehran establishment that want a moratorium on uranium processing to prevent tension from further escalating.

And Russia has another card to play: It has proposed to set up a special-uranium enrichment project for Iran to cover the needs of the Bushehr plant for its full 37-year lifespan. (An agreement now in place has Russia providing the plant's fuel for its first 10 years.) To sweeten it for the Tehran leadership, the Russian proposal could be modified to have part of the enrichment process done in Iranian facilities and with the participation of Iranian scientists and technicians.

All that, however, may lead nowhere. Some analysts suspect that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may actually want a military conflict with the United States as the opening shot in his promised "Clash of Civilizations." He seems convinced that America, plagued by bitter internal dissension, lacks the stomach for a serious fight with the Islamic Republic and its radical allies throughout the Middle East. Thus he may want a clash over the nuclear issue, which many Iranians (thanks to the regime's Goebbelsian presentation) see as a matter of national pride.

But even then Russia could either prevent a clash or hasten it by vetoing or voting for a strong resolution in the U.N. Security Council. The Russian position there is crucial because China, which also has a veto, would not be prepared to isolate itself by siding with Iran if Russia sides with the United States. If Russia vetoes, so will China. If Russia doesn't veto, the most that China might do to please Iran is to abstain.

The Bush administration knows all this. That's why it's starting to build pressure on Russia ahead of this July's G-8 summit, which Russian President Vladimir Putin is to host. The American calculation is that Putin, having won the presidency of the G-8 for Russia for the first time, is unlikely to start his tenure by splitting the group to please the Iranian mullahs.

Yet Putin won't want to make an unambiguous choice between Tehran and Washington. Russia needs the Islamic Republic for a number of reasons - including as part of Moscow's strategy to counter U.S. influence in Central Asia, the Caspian basin and the Middle East.(Tehran and Moscow have been working closely in Afghanistan for more than a decade; they're now developing a joint strategy in anticipation of U.S. withdrawal once President Bush leaves office.)

Moscow also needs Tehran to prevent the United States from imposing its proposed model for the exploitation of the Caspian Sea's immense oil and gas resources. And, having lost all of its Soviet-era Arab friends and clients, Moscow also needs Tehran as a bridgehead to the Middle East, the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.

The current analysis in Moscow is that, once Bush is gone, Iran will emerge as the dominant power in Iraq and would need Russia as a strategic partner in developing such major oilfields as Majnun which sit astride the Irano-Iraqi frontier.

The United States is not the only strategic rival that Russia has identified. Also looming large on the horizon is China which, Putin's recent visit to Beijing notwithstanding, many Moscow analysts see as a potential threat to Russian interests in Asia and the Middle East. A Sino-Iranian axis could isolate Russia in Western Asia and the Middle East and even shut it out of chunks of Central Asia.

Add to all that Russia's immense economic interest in the Islamic Republic. Iran is now the biggest market for Russian arms, including aircraft and submarines. The loss of the Iranian orders might force entire lines of Russian weapons industries to close down.

The two neighbors have also signed trade contracts worth $80 billion over the next decade. And Russia hopes to build most of the seven nuclear power plants that the Islamic Republic wants to set up in the next 10 years. More than 30,000 Russian technicians, both military and civilian, now work in Iran.

There is one more, and (according to Russian analysts) perhaps more important, factor: Putin can never be sure that, come the crunch, Washington will not strike a deal with Tehran, leaving Moscow in the lurch.

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.