US drives a wedge between Russia, Iran

By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Later this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will debate the Iran issue, and already in the welter of competing interests and considerations riveting the attention of the IAEA's governing board, the issue of where Russia stands has gained a unique prominence.

This is because Russia is Iran's sole nuclear partner and, until now, the only major power explicitly acknowledging Iran's nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty-based right to the full nuclear fuel cycle. Moscow has clear economic and geostrategic vested interests with Iran, has consented to Iran's observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and is disinclined to join the US-European Union cooperation vis-a-vis Iran.

However, there are strong indications that Russia's position on Iran's nuclear program is less than iron-clad, and that might

explain the latest bite in US-EU diplomacy meant to weaken Moscow's opposition to sending Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council, and, perhaps, to achieve a Russian turnaround to the detriment of Tehran's interests.

According to reports, the US and European governments dealing with Iran on the nuclear issue (Britain, France and Germany) have hammered out a new proposal that calls for Iran's nuclear fuel fabrication on Russian soil. Under the plan, Iran would continue to operate its uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, which converts raw uranium to uranium hexafluoride. That gas would then be shipped to Russia, where it would be enriched to a level suitable for use in nuclear power generation but not for nuclear weapons.

In this manner, Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, which is where it is feared the highly enriched uranium needed to build a nuclear weapon could be produced, would be circumvented.

This proposal, which is reportedly still being worked out and yet somehow leaked to the world press, will most likely meet Iran's rejection in light of Tehran's determined stance to protect what it considers to be its "inalienable right" as per the articles of the NPT. The new proposal has been tailored less to garner an Iranian positive reaction and more to solicit a Russian turnaround from its unconditional support for Iran's right to enrich uranium, and it is far from certain that it will fail, due to the following reasons.

First, contrary to appearances, there is no Russian "groupthink" on Iran's nuclear program that would be immune to such concerted efforts led by Washington. Russia is occasionally reminded of the perils of a nuclear-armed Iran, and the recent Iranian announcement of willingness to share nuclear technology with other Muslim nations cannot possibly be music to the ears of Moscow policy leaders grappling with their home-gown threats of Muslim extremism.

Second, Russia is increasingly following a dual, and one might even say bifurcated, foreign policy that looks simultaneously to the East and the West, calibrated to maximize Russia's national interests, irrespective of secondary side-effects attributable to certain frictions or lack of them. For example, Russia allies itself with China and simultaneously cooperates with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) through the Russia-NATO Council. Consequently, the present Moscow policy toward Iran may, in fact, fall through the cracks between this dual approach that, in effect, lacks a synthesis.

Third, Russia's foreign policy pragmatists have in the past bargained with the US over Iran, eg, in seeking conventional arms procurement during the Bill Clinton era, and this sets a historic background for future such bargaining behind the back of the Iranians. Of course, this possibility is somewhat diminished right now due to the extensive Russian misgivings about the US military buildup in Russia's back yard of Central Asia and the Caspian Sea basin, but then again it is far from given that a quid pro quo between Moscow and Washington cannot be reached. This would involve a US willingness to reduce or even reverse its buildup in exchange for a new preparedness by Moscow to cooperate on Iran. After all, presently the US is involved in a bit of military overstretch that potentially allows for such a development without exacting excess costs on the US's global strategy.

Fourth, Russia can harvest economic profits by siding with the new Western proposal that would translate into permanent Iranian dependence on Russia's nuclear cooperation, notwithstanding future deals for several nuclear reactors for Iran. The Russians already reprocess spent nuclear fuel from Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which they helped build.

Iran's Russian dependence is not necessarily a positive development for the US, as it would hurl Iran closer to the Russian camp and thus strengthen Moscow's hand in dealing with Washington, but that does not seem to be bothersome to the White House in the new, post-Cold War milieu. What Russia can gain economically and geostrategically by favoring the new proposal may in the short run seem to coincide with Washington's interests, but not necessarily in the long run, depending on the evolution of US-Russia relations.

For the moment, however, it is important to see the new fissures in President Vladimir Putin's pro-Iran stance caused by this new proposal, which adds much fuel to the foreign policy "Westernists" in Moscow who advise Putin against compromising Russia's relations with the US and Europe over Iran.

Caught between the Eurasianists and the Westernists, Putin is forced into a constant balancing act that might tip in favor of the Westernist camp, even within the Russian foreign policy establishment, in light of the seductions of this new proposal; a proposal that, if taken at face value, seems to be pro-Russia and favoring Russia's policy, yet it can have the opposite effect if the net result frustrates Russia's current stance on Iran, alienating Iran from Russia, and leaving Russia in a policy void without much reward worthy of the compromise.

In the entanglement of the above-said considerations, opportunities and pitfalls, Russia's policy with respect to Iran's nuclear program can backfire if not followed with adequate nuance and prudence. The trouble is that the new American-led proposal builds on Russia's own proposal, echoed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after his recent meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and that makes it doubly hard for Moscow to resist it. It is in other words a trap laid by Russia itself.

It will be interesting to see how Moscow reacts to Iran's rejection of the proposal, which aims at soliciting a noticeable change in Moscow's pro-Iran stance within the IAEA. Will Russia remain steadfast in its rebuff of the US's march toward the Security Council, or will it, instead, give a nod to Security Council action under the excuse afforded by this new diplomatic development?

This is not a question to be left to posterity; it will be answered within weeks.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-authored "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume X11, issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu.