December 26, 2007

The Russian Conundrum

Russia has begun transferring nuclear fuel to Iran for the completion of its contract for the nuclear power plant at Bushehr. The delivery marks a victory for Iran, but also a potential trap. The Russians claimed today that its delivery of fuel renders a uranium enrichment program by Iran unnecessary -- as the UN begins considering another round of sanctions for the Iranian refusal to suspend enrichment:

"We believe that Iran has no economic need to proceed with its program of uranium enrichment," Lavrov told the daily.

"We are trying to persuade the Iranians that freezing the program is to their advantage as it would immediately lead to talks with all countries of the "six," including the United States."

Such talks, he said, would aim to end any suspicion that Iran had any secret aim to produce nuclear weapons. "Iran's agreement to this proposal is in everyone's interest."

Iran was aware, he said, that should there be any deviation from agreements to build Bushehr under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, "we will freeze our cooperation."

The sudden warning from Russia comes as a bit of a surprise. Russia had spent the last few weeks defending its resumed cooperation on Bushehr, and had insisted that the Iranians would adhere to the terms of the contract. Now the Russians have sent a not-so-subtle warning to Teheran, telling them in effect that their insistence on enrichment could push Russia into approving a new and tougher round of sanctions.

Russia also warned the US on regime change. In the same interview, Lavrov said that any attempt by the US to force regime change as a goal in the sanctions would be an "improper partnership" and would force Russia to end its cooperation against Iranian proliferation. The US has softened its public rhetoric over the last year about regime change, probably having received this message from both Russia and China less publicly.

What could Russia have in mind with its new public stance? They certainly want to keep their economic engagement with Iran, but probably see that the West has little willingness to allow Iran to go nuclear on its own. Nicolas Sarkozy has made that clear -- and Russia needs to trade freely with France even more than with Iran. The Russians also need the UN as a check on American projection of power, and that won't work unless the UN can be seen to work to keep rogue states like Iran in check. And in the end, the Russians don't want to see the mullahs wind up with a nuclear weapon any more than the West, especially given the state of th Caucasus.


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