Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putin's Progress

By Cernig

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has been unexpectedly forthright about Russia's intentions when it comes to Iran recently, telling the world that, based on his own country's intelligence and the findings of the IAEA, he doesn't believe Iran has a nuclear weapons program.

Today, in Teheran for a meeting of the five Caspian Sea nations, he went even further.

Vladimir Putin, in a landmark visit to Tehran, on Tuesday agreed with other ­Caspian Sea states to endorse “peaceful” nuclear activities in the region.

The Russian president and leaders of Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan also agreed not to allow their territories to be used for a military attack – an indirect reference to the US.

Washington has not ruled out the possibility of military action in its stand-off with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

The states stressed that “under no circumstances will they allow their territories to be used by other countries for aggression or other military operations against. . . member [states]”.

Azerbaijan has a partnership with Nato, which has led to speculation that the US could use Azeri airfields for a possible strike on Iran.

Mr Putin said at a press conference at the end of the summit that the Caspian states were committed to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The Caspian States, it should be noted, include Iran - and so Putin was including Iran in that committment.

Now, the Caspian is a vast trove of wealth for the five nations who claim it - and some commentators have argued that Putin's really only interested in securing that trove before his bank-book demands he accede again to the West's push for an encirclement of Iran. I think that's short-sighted in the extreme. For one thing, it misses an important Russian motivation best put by Ezra today:
The more our aggressiveness unsettles the world, the more they'll seek curtail our hegemony, create states able to asymmetrically "balance" our threat, unite against our interests, and throw down markers signaling that we can't take international dominance for granted. Put another way: The more we scare the world, the less they'll cooperate on vanquishing countries we perceive as threatening.
As I've written before, a world where there is a sole superpower which speaks about looking after everyone's interests but is essentially selfish about its own interests and is willing to make any number of exceptions to its own supposed rules for its allies is an inherently unbalanced one. To coin an analogy, having a cop around can be good - but a corrupt cop who plays favorites, looks out for his own pocket before those of the citizenry and is subject to no meaningful oversight is almost as bad as not having any cop at all. In such a situation, it is inevitable that other nations will look to create counterbalances to that superpower and will be mistrustful of said superpowers plans.

For a second, it misses what the Russian motive for agreeing to any sanctions in the first place was. As has been shown by Russian games over providing fuel for the Bushehr plant, they've spotted a nice little earner if they can block Iran's enrichment program. Iran would have little choice but to pay whatever Russia asked at that point - who else is going to sell power-plant level enriched uranium to Teheran? Moreover, a guaranteed Russian fuel supply might well be the needed bait for Iran forgetting its own claims to more of the Caspian than is currently on offer. That would put Iran firmly in the "economic satellite state" bracket. Which, it should be noted, is Putin's preferred method of empire-building rather than the tanks and soldiers of the Soviet past.
an economically resurgent Russia views the Iran standoff as another opportunity to reclaim some of the strategic ground it lost after the Soviet collapse. It is pushing back against the U.S. because it sees Washington's power as having been used to decimate Moscow's influence in the former Soviet territories it considers its backyard. That strategic orientation has led Russia to make common cause with other regimes at odds with Washington, most important among them China; ironically, perhaps, Moscow and Beijing are more closely aligned now, against U.S. power, than they were during the Cold War, when their respective Communist Parties were at loggerheads.

Although both China and Russia have a stake in Iran — China is heavily invested in its energy sector, while Russia is building the country's nuclear reactor at Bushehr and also selling billions of dollars of weapons to the Islamic Republic — each has more important, and immediate strategic concerns of its own. Both could more easily live with a nuclear-armed Iran than Washington would, and neither sees Iran as a strategic threat. Still, Russia has plainly dragged its feet (by measure of years) over completing the Bushehr reactor, suggesting it may be keeping the Iranian reactor offline as leverage. The friendship between Tehran and Moscow is, at best, an uneasy one.

Russia may hold the key to the Iranian standoff, but it is unlikely to be moved by entreaties by Western leaders for President Putin to "act responsibly" on Iran. Gone are the days when gaining Western approval and gratitude would have been a Kremlin objective. Now, Russia's response will be driven by its own agenda. And in Putin's mind, it's unlikely to be separated from his broader strategic agenda, which most certainly includes a greater leveling of the global balance of power.
The London Times thinks Putin has now sunk any chance for further sanctions - suggesting that Iranian claims of a final deal being struck behind the scenes for enriched fuel are true - and also notes that Iran's nuclear program isn't being considered in isolation by Putin vis-a-vis his dealings with America:
His discussions about co-operation over Caspian Sea energy resources, and likely talks about the completion of a Russian-made nuclear power plant at Bushehr, signal that meaningful sanctions are no longer realistic. The only option left would be unilateral sanctions of the type already imposed by America against Tehran with little effect.

Iran’s press and politicians have not been slow to grasp the significance of the move.

“Just the fact of Putin’s presence on Iranian soil is evidence that the West’s policy of isolation is a failure and can be interpreted as a victory for Iranian diplomacy,” said the newspaper Iran News.

Kazem Jalali, an Iranian MP, described Russia and Iran as “strategic partners” and told state television that the two countries were now on “the same front”.

The biggest casualty from the rapprochement is Iran’s old adversary, America. In the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, President Bush relied on Russia’s support in its war on terror. But the Kremlin broke with Washington in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and has since aggressively pursued its own interests.

Iran will be hoping that the Putin visit has finally destroyed the brief international unity that existed against its nuclear programme and that it is now free to continue its uranium enrichment work undisturbed.

Russia is now at odds with the West over the fate of Kosovo, the breakaway Serb province, policies towards former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine and action against regimes like Iran and Burma.

Part of Moscow’s behaviour is motivated by a sense of betrayal. In particular, it regards Nato’s easterward expansion and America’s plans to build an anti-missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, as threats to its security.


This could partly explain why it has begun resuming long range strategic bomber patrols over the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The Times also cautions, however, that sinking any plan for UNSC sanctions may actually push the Bush administration further towards an attack on Iran.

Some today have asked whether Russia is mad enough to intercede militarily if the Cheneyites succeed in getting their oft-wished-for war with Iran. Perhaps a better question would be: are even the Cheneyites mad enough to push that war forward if there's any chance at all that Russia might defend it's satellite Iran?