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Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bovt on Iran

Here's Georgy Bovt's take on the mysterious goings on between Iran and Russia. Bovt is editor of Profil magazine, and his comments come from the Moscow Times. Which is worse, LR dares to wonder: That Russia is humiliated by being duped by Iran or that Russia is exposed as selling out its so-called ally, or that Russia and Iran are engaged in a concerted effort to dupe the world? The mind boggles.

Russia's relations with Iran have come to resemble its relations with Belarus. In both cases, the each side started out assuring the world of how much they had in common, how mutually advantageous their relationship was, and how they had established an equitable partnership. Most of all, they unfailingly added that all of this had been achieved in spite of the West, and the United States in particular.

Then these wonderful relationships unexpectedly began to fall apart. The declarations of love were replaced by accusations of underhandedness and evil intentions.

This happened with Belarus at the end of last year, when Russia got fed up with subsidizing its economy by selling it oil and gas at bargain prices. In a snap, all thoughts of Slavic brotherhood were forgotten as each side accused the other of acting in bad faith and Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko attempted to blackmail Moscow by threatening to establish independent relations with the West. A similar problem appears imminent between Moscow and Tehran.

The problems with Iran date also to the end of last year, when reports began to surface that Iran was late on payments to Russia for the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Iran blamed the delay on its decision to convert its cash reserves from dollars into Euros. Two months have since passed without the promised payment, and Russia has declared it will halt construction on the Bushehr station. The Iranians provided assurances that some payment had been made, but that no further money would change hands until Russia delivered the first shipment of nuclear fuel. Moscow answered that deliveries of fuel were pointless at this stage, as the reactor was not yet ready to receive it.

This all look like political gamesmanship, especially given Washington's support for Moscow's calls that Iran stick to its contractual obligations. After all, business is business and the Iranians should accept that a contract is a contract.

There is also the creeping suspicion that Moscow is using the late payments as an excuse to pull out of the controversial Bushehr project altogether. Washington has long demanded just this, and blaming Tehran for everything would allow Russia to pull the plug without appearing to have bowed to U.S. pressure.

In a situation like this, most Soviet leaders would have waived the contractual obligations and finished building the plant just to spite the United States. But the current crew in the Kremlin isn't as interested in "altruistic" projects, and when the price tag for opposing U.S. policy becomes prohibitively high, it tends to opt for pragmatism. Nobody -- or at least nobody in Russia -- is ready to foot the bill for the Bushehr power plant.

Iran's motives are unclear at first glance. The Iranian government owes Russia something in the neighborhood of $200 million to $250 million, a sum it could produce instantly if it wanted to. The ultimatum regarding fuel deliveries appears to be deliberately impracticable, which gives the impression that the Iranians themselves are now less interested completing the construction at Bushehr. This could be because the project has become a political lightning rod. Iran doesn't want to incur any increased obligations in its relationship with Moscow or join it in an anti-U.S. crusade. It doesn't want to become dependent on Russia for its nuclear energy program as it doesn't entirely trust Moscow. The money withheld from Russia will probably be set aside for a different plant or to enable the Iranians to finish the Bushehr project themselves.

Russia comes out the loser here. It tried to play the "Iranian card" by building a special relationship with an unpredictable, fanatical regime strongly opposed to the United States. This was Moscow's way of demonstrating its independence or, using the terminology currently in fashion in the Kremlin, its "sovereignty" in foreign policy.

But one particular characteristic of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes -- whether run by Iranian mullahs or by a former chairman of a Soviet collective farm like Lukashenko -- is that they are unpredictable. They change the rules of the game according to their own whims and wishes, and without consultation.

Furthermore, they only understand one language -- the language of force. Had Russia acted in concert with the large international group trying to bring pressure on Iran -- as it did, for example, with the group of six nations addressing the issue of North Korea's nuclear program -- it would have left Tehran without maneuvering space and reduced its ability to blackmail others.

Whatever the case, canceling the Bushehr contract -- a move that looks increasingly imminent today -- would not have left Moscow in the awkward position in which it now risks finding itself. This is the result of naively placing all its hopes on Iran and vehemently rejecting every suggestion from Washington that Russia and the United States coordinate their policies toward Iran. Once the disagreement arose with Tehran, Moscow was stuck.

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