Much ado about Russia-Iran ties

Asia Times, January 11, 2006

Why has the United States been failing to persuade Russia to take a tough line on Iran's nuclear program?

As the administration of President George W Bush insists on taking the issue to the United Nations Security Council should Tehran fail to resume negotiations on limiting its nuclear ability, Russia continues to engage openly with Iran. Both US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the acting assistant secretary of state for arms control, Stephen Rademaker, have been rebuffed by Moscow.

Even the call by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for Israel to be "wiped off the map" does not seem to have made Russia move closer to the US position. In the interest of greater realism about US-Russia relations, it is important to clarify Moscow's views of its stake in the issue.

Russia considers cooperation with Iran, as well as Syria and some other "dangerous regimes", in its national interests. Although Western pressures are felt by Russia, especially as it strives to gain greater recognition from the West, the suggestion that the Kremlin could withdraw its support of the Iranian regime because of Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli statement is premature.

Russia's financial gains from cooperation with both Iran and Syria stand to be very considerable, and this may be just a beginning of future cooperation. Politically, Russia's position of working through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and developing an international mechanism for verifying Iran's nuclear program remains credible, particularly if the alternative is to take the matter to the UN and then to rely on the use of force out of dissatisfaction with the IAEA's decision. The memories of the Iraq issue continue to be fresh across the world.

In addition, there is an important angle of economic competition over Iranian resources and access to Iranian markets. Russia continues to believe that Western concerns about nuclear proliferation merely reflect commercial interests to drive Russia out of competitive markets. In September 2003, for instance, in his interview with Western journalists, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated: "According to our information, many Western European and American companies cooperate with Iran either directly or through intermediary organizations in the nuclear sphere."

To substantiate the Kremlin's claims about the commercial nature of Washington's pressures, some Russian analysts argued that, even in the absence of official contracts, US-Iranian trade turnover was about US$1 billion, which was higher than that of Russia, despite the Russia-Iran strategic partnership agreement. The analysts also pointed out that immediately before the Islamic revolution in Iran, Washington and Tehran had signed a contract worth $24 billion, which provided for US assistance in constructing eight nuclear power plants in Iran within 10 years.

For Russia, it is a balancing act between gaining recognition by the West and developing commercial ties with regimes that Western nations consider "dangerous". At this point, it does not seem that Moscow has exhausted its political resources and is ready to surrender to Western demands. As long as Russian-Western cooperation in a number of other important issues of non-proliferation, as well as intelligence sharing and energy supplies, continues to progress, the balance may still be preserved.

Statements about "wiping out" Israel are, of course, entirely unacceptable, whatever Ahmadinejad's hardline politics in Iran, Iraq or the wider Middle East may be. Nor is it acceptable that Syria does not comply in the inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. However, one can well imagine that Russia's new stance will be to condemn such politics while continuing to develop economic ties.

Focusing on Russia as a key obstacle to strengthening the non-proliferation regime, as some Western observers and politicians tend to do, is misleading. A more promising way to address the problem of proliferation is to look closely at all the leading nuclear powers and their credibility in the world.

It is quite clear that an important reason so many "dangerous" regimes feel compelled to develop their own nuclear programs has to do with the absence of adequate security assurances, particularly from the US.

One can hardly speak of such assurances when the US Defense Department implies that the United States can use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. Recently more than 470 physicists, including seven Nobel laureates, signed a petition to contest the proposal. Developing a comprehensive plan, which would include steps in the direction of disarmament by all involved parties, is a far more productive and responsible way to address the problem than merely to put Russia, Iran or North Korea on the spot.