Defusing The US-Iran Time Bomb

Amir Taheri, Special to Gulf News

Gulf News, United Arab Emirates
April 12, 2006 Wednesday

On more than one occasion US President George W. Bush has described
his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as “a strategic ally” and “a
friend we can trust”. Whether or not Bush’s judgment is right may
be hard to establish. But a crucial test of it is taking shape in
relation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

As the diplomatic manoeuvres to pressure Iran continue, the message
one hears in policy circles in most capitals is simple: the key is
in Moscow!

The reasoning behind that suggestion is simple: Of all the powers
involved in the current showdown with Iran, only Russia is in a
position to tip the balance one way or another that is to say between
a peaceful resolution or war.

To start with Russia, which is building Iran’s first and, so far, only
nuclear power plant near Bushehr, could slow down, or even 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 programme
as a means of preventing tension from further escalating.

Russia has another card to play in the shape of its proposal to set
up a special uranium enrichment project for Iran to cover the needs
of the Bushehr plant during its entire life-span of 37 years. (At
present there is a pact for Russia to provide the plant with fuel
for the first 10 years.) To make it easier for the Tehran leadership
to keep face, 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 because, as some analysts suspect,
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may actually want a military
conflict with the US as the opening shot in his promised “clash of

Internal dissensions

Incredible though it may appear, Ahamadinejad seems to be convinced
that the US, plagued by bitter internal dissensions, does not have
the stomach for a serious fight with Iran and its radical allies
throughout the Middle East. Thus he may want a clash over the nuclear
issue which, thanks to the Goebbelsian presentation, is seen by many
Iranians as a matter of nationalistic pride.

But even then Russia would be in a position either to prevent a clash
or hasten it by vetoing or voting for a strong resolution in the UN
Security Council. The Russian position at the Security Council 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 US. If
Russia vetoes, so will China. If Russia does not veto, the most that
China might do to please Iran is to abstain.

The Bush administration knows all that. This is why it is beginning to
build up pressure on Russia ahead of the next G-8 summit, scheduled to
be hosted by Putin in July. 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.

Nevertheless, it would not be easy for Putin to make an unambiguous
choice between Tehran and Washington. Russia needs Iran for a number
of reasons, including, paradoxically, as part of Moscow’s strategy
to counter and, if possible, curtail, US influence in Central Asia,
the Caspian Basin and the Middle East.

As regional allies, Tehran and Moscow have already succeeded in
containing or curtailing American influence in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan
and Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, Tehran, which had sided with the US
against Russia a decade ago, is now switching back to Moscow.

In Trans-Caucasia, Tehran and Moscow have sided with Armenia against
Azerbaijan and Georgia both of which are in the American camp. In
Afghanistan, Tehran and Moscow have been working closely for more than
a decade and are engaged in developing a joint strategy in anticipation
of an American withdrawal once Bush leaves office in three years’ time.

Moscow also needs Tehran to prevent the US from imposing its proposed
model for the exploitation of the Caspian Sea’s immense oil and
gas resources.

The US, backed by Britain, proposes a division of the Caspian among
its littoral states so that each could conclude separate contracts
with foreign nations. Of the five littoral states of the Caspian only
two, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, are favourable to the US proposed
model. Russia and Iran are against.

They propose that the Caspian be treated as a single unit in which all
activity, including exploitation of energy resources and navigation,
would require the consent of all littoral states. (The fifth littoral
state, Turkmenistan, has tried not to take side but is closer to Iran
and Russia.)

Having lost all of its Arab friends and clients of the Soviet era,
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.

It is also in conjunction with Iran, that Russia envisages making a
comeback in such places as Syria and Lebanon where Iranian influence
is already well-established.

Strategic rival

The US 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, is seen by many Moscow analysts as
a potential threat to Russian interests in Asia and the Middle East.

In that context a Sino-Iranian axis could isolate Russia in Western
Asia and the Middle East and even shut it out of chunks of Central

Another reason why Moscow needs Iran is related to the so-called
“Islamic time bomb” that is ticking in the heart of the Russian
federation. With birthrates among ethnic Russians in free fall,
the federation’s estimated 25 million Muslims, now a fifth of the
population, are slated to double by the middle of the century.

The Islamic Republic, although a Shiite power, could, nevertheless,
play a role in discouraging secessionist tendencies among Russia’s
predominantly Sunni Muslims.

Conversely, a hostile Iran could use its immense experience in
exporting terrorism to make life difficult for Russia at a time it
is dealing with demographic decline.

Add to all that Russia’s immense commercial and economic interest in
the Islamic Republic and a more complex picture will emerge. Iran is
currently the biggest market for Russian arms, including aircraft and
submarines. The loss of the Iranian orders may force entire lines of
Russian weapons industries to close down.

The two neighbours 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. The fact that more than 30,000 Russian technicians,
both military and civilian, work in Iran adds an important human
dimension to the relationship.

Big power games, oil, Islam, trade, arms and terrorism are some of
the factors that make it hard for Putin to side with the US in the
coming confrontation with the Islamic Republic. But there is another,
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.

Amir Taheri was the executive editor of Kayhan, the most important
Iranian newspaper during the reign of the Shah and is a member of
Benador Associates.

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