Friday, November 30, 2007

The devious Bear: Russia's influence on Annapolis, Iraq, and Iran

Remember, there are two paths to an Iranian bomb -- the intensive enrichment of U-235 via centrifuge cascades, and the transformation of much less enriched uranium into plutonium via a heavy water reactor. Iran is pursuing both strategies, the second with the apparent help of Russia. We use the word "apparent" advisedly, because it is not entirely clear whether Russia is helping with all the energy and effectiveness it could muster if it actually wanted Iran to produce its own plutonium. Stratfor's email of last night describes the willingness of the Russians to cooperate with the Iranians in the most cynical terms (cynicism being something of a Stratfor specialty). I have rendered into bold certain statements that might be particularly interesting or controversial to our regular readers.

The regional power whose geopolitical options would be most truncated by a nuclear-armed Iran is not the United States, but Russia. The two repeatedly have clashed in the past, and the Soviet Union occupied much of Persia in the last century. The only reason Moscow and Tehran have not recently been at each others' throats is that they have the buffer of the independent Caucasian and Central Asian states between them; at present, they can afford to be allies.

Therefore, Russia finds the idea of an Iranian nuclear program terrifying, but in keeping with a time-honored Russian tradition, Moscow is willing to flirt with helping the Iranians in order to gain leverage on related issues. Specifically, Russian assistance gives Moscow a hand in Iranian affairs, U.S. negotiations with the Iranians over the future of Iraq, and European economic relations with Iran. But should Bushehr become active, that leverage will vanish. Put another way, Russia has a vested interest in assisting Iran's program, but not in actually helping Iran finish it.

As we noted in one of our Geopolitical Diaries about a year ago, the only remaining question is: How long can Russia milk this?

The answer is: longer than one might think. The original deal to build Bushehr dates back to 1995. The project was scheduled to be completed in 1999, and even the Russians have quietly admitted that the reactor core has been ready since late 2004. But because Russia has always based its decisions on politics rather than on reality, the reactor's unveiling might still be a long time coming.

What would be required on the part of the Russians to change this strategy would be the belief that the whole system -- from their point of view -- is falling apart. And that is precisely what seems to be happening.

In the past week, two key pro-Iranian figures in Iraq -- Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite faction, the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council -- both more or less signed off on a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. Al-Hakim even met one-on-one with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on Nov. 27. The Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., on the future of the Palestinian territories saw nearly all of the region's power brokers -- including the Syrians -- come together to agree on a roadmap that will create a Palestinian state.

Normally, Tehran would interpret such developments as a surge of U.S. power that requires a surge of its own in response. In the past, this has meant using its connections to Shiite militias to set Iraq on fire. Yet, so far, Tehran has not so much as raised an eyebrow, and Iraq is calm -- well, as calm as it ever gets (read: attacks are still dropping) -- suggesting that the United States and the Iranians may finally be reaching some sort of deal on the future of Iraq.

Russia used every diplomatic tool in its power to derail Annapolis, including deploying former Prime Minister and Soviet foreign policy maverick Yevgeny Primakov in an effort to make the talks all about the Golan Heights -- an issue so thorny that makes the Israeli-Palestinian dispute look like a stuffed animal in comparison. Yet, peace deals and geopolitical alignments appear to be breaking out across the Middle East with breathtaking speed. And while the dominant view -- particularly in Washington, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh and Baghdad -- is nervous optimism, the emotion percolating in Moscow is terror. A Middle East that is not on fire is a Middle East that does not consume Washington's attention. And a Washington, and even an Iran, that has free time is one that starts poking into the Russian near abroad.

In fact, the picture is worse than it appears at first glance. The Europeans have pretty much given up on economic contact with Iran; Europe is crafting a common energy policy to reduce their reliance on Russian petroleum; and Chinese economic growth continues to outshine anything the Russians can generate. High energy prices may have granted Russia more options at home, but the challenges on the Russian periphery have only gotten bigger recently.

Russia now needs to use every tool at its disposal in an attempt to upend the progress that the Americans and the Middle Eastern powers have made in order to distract the world from Moscow. One tactic will be to hold its own counter-conference on the Palestinian issue in an effort to derail the progress at Annapolis. Another will be to ship nuclear fuel to Bushehr and switch the reactor on in the hopes that this sufficiently emboldens Iran enough for it to scrap the most recent round of talks with the United States and demand more.

I'll leave it to you to discuss whether Russia is in fact playing such a deep game, and whether Stratfor describes its interests accurately. Stratfor's observation about the level of violence in Iraq is very interesting, however, and invites an obvious question. Yes, the news of a permanent base deal with Iraq is certainly a defeat for Iran. Is Iran's failure to escalate the product of some quid pro quo in the ongoing sub rosa negotiations with the United States (as Stratfor suggests), or is it a reflection of Iran's geopolitical defeat in the battle for Iraq?

Source: Tiger hawk

1 comment:

Rosemary said...

Hi sweetie. The USSR is back in business. I never did quite swallow that pill that so many others did just because they desired peace so desparately. I remember that old saying, 'Trust but verify.'

How is everything with you? I am doing well. I moved to Rosemary's Thoughts. If you ever want to leave a trackback, just do so from the independent Wizbang thingy. It is close to the Day by day cartoons.

Miss ya. :)