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Analysis & Opinion
09.10.09 Is Iran Pushing Russia Closer To The West?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Stephen Blank, Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky

Iran’s disclosure of a secret uranium enrichment facility at Qom, which it had never before revealed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (as it was obligated to do), has clearly forced the Russian leadership into a more cooperative stance with the West on new UN sanctions against Iran. Is President Dmitry Medvedev’s indication that Russia will consider supporting tougher sanctions just a forced gesture to account for Iran’s continued cheating on its NPT obligations, or is it a more far-reaching move toward more sustained engagement with the United States on global issues?

It is obvious that the secret facility was meant solely for a nuclear weapons program, which Iran still denies having. A second facility in addition to the one at Natanz, already under IAEA monitoring, would have allowed Iran to clandestinely produce the amounts of weapon-grade uranium needed to build a few nuclear weapons.

Russia, which has resisted Western efforts to toughen international sanctions on Iran to make it abolish its nuclear weapons program for years, has found itself in a weak position to argue against a new set of sanctions now under discussion within the UN Security Council.

The Russian leadership is also feeling the need to respond with a substantial positive gesture to President Barack Obama’s recent decision to cancel the George Bush administration’s plans for missile defense deployments in Eastern Europe (ostensibly needed to counter the Iranian nuclear missile threat).

On a trip to the UN, President Dmitry Medvedev signaled for the first time that Russia would be amenable to longstanding American requests to significantly toughen sanctions against Iran, if nuclear talks with Teheran fail to make progress. Medvedev said that “sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.”

Medvedev did not hide his frustration with Iran and was clearly anxious to move closer to Obama by appearing cooperative on an international issue of major importance to Washington. By showing his readiness to join forces with America on standing up to Iran, Medvedev was signaling a break with the previous die-hard Russian opposition to any tough measures against Iran.

This break might also have far-reaching domestic political implications for Medvedev, as it appears to be at odds with the stance that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin seems to be advocating. In fact, days after Medvedev’s statement in New York, Putin seemed to question the need for stronger sanctions.

Medvedev also looked amenable to cancelling the sale of Russian sophisticated air defense systems to Iran. On a secret trip to Moscow in early September, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally asked for these sales to be stopped.

It is not yet clear whether it was Medvedev’s hint that Russia was about to withdraw its longstanding support for Iran that prompted Teheran to indicate at last week’s P5+1 meeting that it is prepared to ship its declared enriched uranium to a third country (most likely Russia) for it to be turned into nuclear reactor fuel. If implemented, this move would alleviate many nuclear proliferation concerns, thus providing a clear victory for U.S.-Russian cooperation on Iran. Medvedev and Obama would then be able to boast of the first concrete manifestation of the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations.

Is Russia indeed moving closer to the West on Iran? Is it just a forced gesture to account for Iran’s continued cheating on its NPT obligations, or is it a more far-reaching move by Medvedev toward more sustained engagement with the United States on global issues? Is it a move dictated by Medvedev’s calculations to shore up his domestic position vis-?-vis Putin by drawing upon Washington’s support, in the same way that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sought to buttress his crumbling domestic support with endorsements from Western leaders? Would this be a smart strategy for Medvedev? How should the West react to Medvedev’s stance on Iran and other issues?

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow:

Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, and the rising threat of Islamic fundamentalism, not only present a clear and extreme danger, but also provide the perfect logical base for closer U.S.-Russian cooperation. Of course, it is always easier to say what should have been done afterward, but shouldn’t we at least learn some lessons from the not-so-distant past? No matter how much we despised and hated communism and the Soviet rulers, politicians with vision could have predicted the disastrous consequence of supplying the Afghan Mujahedeen, including Terrorist Number One Osama bin Laden himself, with tons of cash and the most sophisticated weaponry, like Stinger rockets.

After Jimmy Carter, along with his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, yielded Iran to the Ayatollahs, it became pretty obvious that Islamic militancy was becoming a major threat to the West, a threat which overshadowed even the Soviet one. Anyone with basic understanding of the internal situation in Soviet Union knew that by the late 1970s - early 1980s, communism has exhausted its zeal. Not only did the Soviet intelligentsia reject its appeal, but even the highest Kremlin rulers, including members of Politburo, were privately laughing at their own speeches and slogans. Telling anecdotes and humiliating jokes about communism became major social entertainment. This, together with the sad state of the Soviet economy, should have led the White House to let communism pass into the ashes of history by way of a natural death, instead of creating a supposedly anti-Soviet Frankenstein’s monster, who has turned out to be the worst U.S. and European nightmare.

We have at least two good examples of successful military cooperation between Moscow and Washington - in World War II between 1941 and 1945, and in the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. Now is the time for more. It is in the vital interest of both countries to forge an alliance to handle the problems of Afghanistan and Iran. In Iran, Russia has all the key cards, and it can and should play a decisive role in averting a looming catastrophe. Moscow’s earlier proposal to enrich uranium for Iran’s supposedly peaceful energy reactors is probably the best on the table so far, and should be supported by all those who are sincerely interested in coming to terms on a mutually-accepted agreement.

The alternative is yet another war in the Middle East, in addition to Afghanistan and Iraq, which America can ill afford. However, the winds of war are already blowing across the Persian Gulf, as ever-more influential voices in Washington come to the conclusion that war is inevitable despite all the horrible consequences.

Russia can help to avert this disaster, but at the same time the West should understand that the Kremlin is in no position to antagonize Iran, and not only for economic reasons. Taking into account the violent Islamic insurgency in the Caucasus and the role that Iran could play in further destabilizing the situation, Russia should be given some security guarantees if all hell breaks loose over there. In addition, in order to offer Russia more incentives, the United States should rethink its poorly-devised pipeline policy of undermining Russia’s interests in the Caspian region.

It looks like Obama is making some encouraging moves in the right direction. Scrapping the anti-ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe and dropping the plans for Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO is certainly a very welcome change from the disastrous Bill Clinton - George Bush policies of treating Russia as a defeated power. Now even such hawks as Brzezinski call for closer NATO - Russia ties, which is a good sign. The Kremlin has also made some reciprocal positive moves by offering logistical help to NATO in Afghanistan, and indicating its willingness to vote for tougher sanctions against Iran if the latter fails to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

This was enough to prompt Teheran to indicate that it was prepared to ship its declared enriched uranium to Russia, which is the first step in accepting the original Russian proposal to perform the whole process of enrichment for Iran.
However, this is only the beginning. More dramatic steps toward stabilizing the Middle East should be taken, and the two young leaders, Obama and Medvedev, have the obligation to find a proper solution and succeed in these most difficult times.

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC:

It is impossible to maintain mutually-beneficial, genuine, and long-lasting relationships with governments (and even spouses) that do not honor their word. Last week, the Iranian "president" showed the international community, in front of the United Nations, that his public statements about the scope and objectives of his country's nuclear program were false.

This situation has provided president Medvedev and his trusted foreign policy advisors with the moral and credible justification for Russia to end its long-standing refusal to support stricter sanctions against Iran, without having to say that Russia's previous approach was ill-conceived. The Russian president voiced his general skepticism about the effectiveness (and desirability) of sanctions in general, but there are times when one has to take a stand that will not merely be symbolic. Medvedev’s failure to reverse course could prove to be a calamity for Russian interests.

Many astute observers of Iran (notably Robert Baer) have long recognized that Ayatollah Khamenei, his inner circle of supporters, and the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard who have been running Iran, are not merely intolerant, but represent a real threat to world peace. For more than two decades, Iran has been seeking to extend its influence over countries stretching from Lebanon to Western China, as well as to gain control over the countries bordering the Persian Gulf.

The Iranian governmental structure that exists on paper does not describe the decision-making process within the country, as the former reformist Iranian President Muhammad Khatami came to understand. Iran’s "president" Ahmadinejad might claim to have been re-elected in the country's recent "elections," but the repression directed at his opponents’ supporters illustrates that both Ahmadinejad and the ruling clerics have limited legitimacy within Iran.

The existing system can only persevere through force and intimidation. President Medvedev's ability to adopt Russian policy to this dynamic situation is likely to have future ramifications.

The IAEA has just concluded that Iran has sufficient information to produce and design an atomic bomb. Mohamed ElBaradei’s credibility is beyond challenge, particularly since he has never waivered from his position that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction, despite the Bush administration's efforts to convince him otherwise. The IAEA's analysis came to light shortly after Iran's testing of its latest missile and its admission that it had indeed had a second uranium enrichment plant at Qom.

This raises the question of whether the Russian authorities are aware of Iran's capabilities and to what degree, and their role is in enhancing them. Russia may pay a significant economic, political and public relations price if it were to be viewed as the patron of a dangerous regime, especially if it played a larger role in the development of Iranian capabilities than is generally known.

Fortunately for him, president Medvedev does not appear to be personally invested in these activities. Consequently, he can use the present situation to step up Russia's cooperation with Britain, France, Germany and the United States. It is not in Russia's interests to be Iran's protector.

Future Iranian leaders are likely to want to end the country's diplomatic isolation and reduce its costly military programs, which depress the quality of life in the country. For a generation, many Iranians have felt that the United States was the great Satan for its role in supporting the Shah's rule. Unless Medvedev aligns Russia with the West and against the present Iranian regime, how will Iranians view Russia in the future? Medvedev probably understands that there are both foreign and domestic benefits for Russia to combat nuclear proliferation and abandon the policies of the past. The same cannot be said of prime minister Putin.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Iran’s insistence on developing what appears as a dual-use nuclear capacity and Teheran’s bellicose rhetoric and evasive behavior are evidently a growing concern for the global community, which includes Russia.

The above issue extends beyond the Middle East, and even geographic Europe, because it erodes certain foundational aspects of global non-proliferation institutions, policies and methods. The worst-case consequences of Iran’s nuclear development program are very dire, if one takes into account the frequently belligerent declarations emanating from Teheran, often resembling bizarre, bi-polar delirium.

Therefore, it is appropriate that the recent disclosure of a heavily bunkered and defended uranium enrichment facility near Qom is cause for everybody’s increased alertness. Moscow’s review of policy regarding Iranian nuclear intentions may be driven mainly by the newly received evidence, with the U.S.-Russian relationship playing an important, but not necessarily primary, role in this context.

On the subject of sanctions, one should remember how sanctions against Saddam Hussein in Iraq were mostly ineffectual – the general population of the target country might suffer (in part enthusiastically, as a patriotic sacrifice, or as an exercise in xenophobia) but the leadership is usually isolated from material hardships imposed by sanctions and responds to sanctions with an openly hostile course of behavior. Sanctions leave few options for escalation, and increased conflict in the region is not likely to sustain the ultimate objective: achieving nuclear non-proliferation.

Whilst recently visiting the United States, Medvedev commented on the possible consequences of forceful action against Iran in the present situation, suggesting that the use of force will not provide a lasting solution and is likely to cause many new undesirable consequences, which would be counterproductive in the longer term.

Are the new developments causing a “rapprochement” of Russia with “the West” on the subject of Iranian nuclear programs? One should note that Moscow’s evaluation of Iran’s nuclear activities has not been fundamentally different – nuclear weapons development by Iran is forbidden. Any perceived differences have been in particular evaluations of Iranian capabilities and intent, and in the modalities of international response to Iran’s nuclear activities. As new information impacts Moscow, evaluations change, and naturally, new political responses emerge.

It seems mistaken to propose that president Medvedev’s statements regarding Iran are directed at gaining “Western approval” in order to “shore up” a presumed, “weakened” domestic position. Firstly, there is no hard evidence that Medvedev’s position domestically has weakened. Secondly, president Medvedev’s electorate is inside Russia, and not inside the Beltway (or elsewhere in the West.) It is the Russian electorate that matters to the Russian leadership, as is appropriate for any genuine democracy. One should remember that the West generally has very low credibility with most Russian citizens due to Western actions during the dismantling of Yugoslavia, the events in Kosovo, and more recently the vociferous support by Washington of Mikhail Saakashvili’s aggression in the Southern Caucasus in August of 2008. Washington’s approval of Moscow on the Iranian matter is not a vote-winner in Tomsk.

There was a time in the 1990s when the approval of Western political elites was eagerly sought by some political leaders in Russia (the average Russian citizens at that time were too busy to speak up, they were just surviving). Those days are long gone, and that paradigm is no longer functional. Western approval or support is not a major factor in Russian domestic democracy.

Professor Stephen Blank, the U.S. Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

My assessment as of October 5 is that it is premature to think that a fundamental shift in Russian policy is occurring. The numerous statements by Russian officials and pundits that there would be no support for sanctions suggest that despite Russian policymakers’ visible frustration with Iran - not a new phenomenon, I might add - they will not do anything that might benefit the United States.

Last year, Alexei Arbatov outlined in a book why Russia's policymakers are unlikely to take serious action against Iran and North Korea (which heretofore they regarded as a more serious threat since it actually possesses nuclear weapons). There may well be a debate underway, and I think Frolov rightly points to the likelihood of this being another issue of contention between Putin and Medvedev. But I also think it will be another issue in the litany of Medvedev's continuing failure to achieve anything meaningful and reverse the course of Russia's unilateralism, neo-imperial policy, and atavistic anti-Americanism.
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