Thursday, May 04, 2006

Russian Bridge to Iran has Twists

Alissa J. Rubin and Kim Murphy, The Los Angeles Times:
As the U.N. Security Council meets this week to discuss how best to stop Iran's march toward nuclear weapons capability, Russia has the potential to serve as a bridge between the West and the Islamic Republic. But Moscow's complex motives may make it a difficult partner.

Russia, a permanent member of the council and one that has had close ties to Middle Eastern countries since the Soviet era, now views the volatile, oil-rich region as the key to regaining its position as a world leader, diplomats and analysts say. Moscow also has strong economic ties to Tehran: Two-way trade topped $2 billion in 2004, and Iranian officials predicted recently that it would double in coming years.

This is "a moment of truth for Russia," when the nation will choose whether to throw its lot with the West or keep the U.S. and its allies at arm's length, said Radzhab Safarov, director of the Iranian Studies Center in Moscow. READ MORE

The two Western European permanent members of the council, Britain and France, share the United States' goal of persuading Iran to halt uranium enrichment, and they are willing to back sanctions, and perhaps ultimately military action, to obtain that goal. On Wednesday, the United States, Britain and France introduced a draft Security Council resolution ordering Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment activities.

Although Moscow shares the West's desire to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, it has other interests as well, chief among them enhancing its own status as an alternative power to the United States, diplomats and experts say.

"Russia has a bunch of motives…. Coming back as one of the world's superpowers is definitely one — counterbalancing the U.S., but also counterbalancing China and India," said a senior European diplomat with experience in the former Soviet Union who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the Iran debate.

"Even with 25 nuclear warheads, Iran would never be a threat to Russia, which could readily retaliate. So accepting that Iran might have a small nuclear capability and combining that with potential Russian economic successes in Iran and the Russian capability to influence or even to lead Iran — that is really something" for Moscow, the diplomat said.

Russia is particularly worried that the U.S. experience in Iraq will be repeated — a concern shared by much of the world.

"Of course the Russians don't want the Iranians to develop nukes, but they are much more concerned about confrontation leading to sanctions and war, and that's much more of a threat to their interests," said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration who now serves as head of global security for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He recently visited Moscow to discuss diplomacy on nuclear issues.

Sanctions could limit Russian exports to Iran and war would almost certainly destabilize the region, disrupting Russian business not only with Iran but also throughout the Middle East.

Safarov, the Russia analyst, said that beyond economic concerns, regaining ascendancy on the world stage was paramount for Russia. If Moscow can define itself as the world's broker on Iran, he said, it will be the "go to" country for the West in dealing with the Islamic Republic.

"Russia has a unique and historic chance to return to the world arena once again as a key player and as a reborn superpower," Safarov said. "If Russia firmly stands by Iran's interests in this conflict … Russia will immediately regain its quite lost prestige in the Muslim world and on the global arena at large.

"Of course, that will result in a serious cooling of relations between Russia and the United States. But Russia and the United States are destined to be competitors," he said, "and no lucrative proposals from the United States can change this situation strategically."

On Wednesday, the Security Council began to discuss a legally binding resolution to require Iran to stop its enrichment activities. But the resolution will avoid any mention of sanctions, which Russia and another permanent member, China, oppose. U.S. and European officials expect Russia to sign on to it after some blusteror at least abstain and allow it to pass because it merely formalizes a previous council statement, backed by Russia, which demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activities. All five permanent members of the United Nations council have veto power.

"I'm sure we can find the right language that will assure everyone that this resolution is not about sanctions," U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said.

Even as Russian officials repeat Iran's mantra that it has a right to peaceful nuclear power, Moscow is adamant that Iran should not produce a bomb or, as Russian diplomats frequently put it, "violate the nonproliferation regime."

"Our position is always [the same], and it's conditioned by two basic principles, which are the integrity and inviolability of the nonproliferation regime — this is absolutely fundamental, absolutely essential," said Nikolai Spassky, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, speaking to reporters recently in Moscow.

"On the other hand, we've got to recognize and to acknowledge the undeniable right of Iran, like any other country in the world, to peacefully pursue its peaceful nuclear program, peaceful nuclear energy.

"Of course, it's not an easy thing to reconcile these two basic positions, but we do think that it's still possible," Spassky said.

Russia has laid the groundwork for its ascendancy with ever-increasing economic ties. Besides the oil products that it has to import, Iran also buys conventional arms and missile defense systems from Russia.

Russia sold Iran at least $4 billion of military and dual-use equipment in the 1990s, and just this year Tehran concluded a nearly $1-billion deal to buy 30 missile defense systems, intelligence sources say. Those systems could make it harder for the United States and its allies to bomb Iran's nuclear installations.

Russia has expressed interest in expanding its involvement in helping Iran build up its civilian nuclear power industry. It helped Iran build its sole nuclear power plant at Bushehr, a $1-billion project that is almost complete, and is well-positioned to assist if the Islamic Republic proceeds with its stated goal of building more nuclear plants. Russia is one of just a handful of countries that have the technological know-how to build such facilities, and is the one with the best relations with Iran.

U.S. officials have pressed Russia to halt its assistance with the Bushehr plant and hold back on sending the Iranians the nuclear fuel rods it has agreed to provide to operate the reactor. Russia has not formally responded, but it has yet to send the fuel rods, which are necessary to run the plant.

Russia also has a political interest in Iran, which has helpfully remained silent in the face of Moscow's efforts to suppress Muslim separatists in the republic of Chechnya. Iran has also refrained from encouraging Islamic fundamentalists to stir up Russia's Muslims, who make up about 15% of its population.

The country's focus on the Middle East as a way to regain its global stature began not long after the former Soviet Union broke up.

First, Russia joined the Conference of Islamic States as an observer, reaching out again to the Islamic world. Then, in 1992, Russia and Iran set up a joint economic committee to encourage business ventures between the two countries.

The cozy relationship between the two states means that there is probably regular consultation between Moscow and Tehran, and Russia's decisions are carefully calibrated to avoid alienating either the Iranians or the West.

"Knowing the Russians and knowing their relationship, I think they are telling Iran how far they are prepared to go," said a senior diplomat in Europe for a Middle Eastern country who declined to be identified because questions surrounding Iran are so sensitive.

As negotiations over the Security Council's next steps proceed, the Russians probably will review their moves before making them with all players, the European diplomat said.

"Every step they discuss with the five [permanent Security Council members] is balanced with steps they discuss with Iran," the diplomat said. "They get a kind of silent agreement with Iran that they might go along … because of their political interests. But they have to talk with Iran — it's in their backyard, and no matter what happens, they have to live with it."

Rubin reported from Vienna and Murphy from Moscow. Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.