Writing in the Canadian Globe & Mail Andrei Piontkovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Centre in Moscow, offers the following analysis of the Russia-Iran nexus:
Recent reports of controversy over Russian funding of the construction of Iran's atomic power station at Bushehr has lead many people to the wrong conclusion. The New York Times, for example, reported that Russian officials had told Iran no fuel would be delivered to the station if enrichment continued, leading many to assume there was a change in Moscow's stand on Iran's nuclear aspirations, bringing it closer to the U.S. and European positions.
Before the printer's ink was dry on this assertion, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had branded it blatant disinformation intended to cast a shadow over the traditionally friendly relations between Russia and Iran.
There was a conflict over payment, it seems, but it resulted more from problems over the kickbacks that accompany practically every major Russo-Iranian deal. Evidently, some top Russian official had not received his cut.
Mr. Lavrov's indignation over the Times's commentary was entirely sincere, if rather naive. It is further confirmation that Moscow is happy to watch Iran continue toward possession of nuclear weapons. But with a different goal in mind.
For Moscow, the best-case scenario for an end to the Iranian nuclear crisis would be an Israeli and/or U.S. preventive strike against Iran's nuclear sites.
Why? In the first place, because an Iranian nuclear bomb is something the Russian leaders really do not need. Iran is, after all, the only state in the world with official territorial claims against Russia (part of the Caspian seabed is disputed).
In the second place, all the indignation of the Islamic world would be directed against Israel and the United States, which would also suit Moscow well.
Last, but not least, Iran would doubtless retaliate by destroying the Saudi oil platforms and blocking the Strait of Hormuz, interrupting the export of oil from the Middle East for a while.
The chekist oil barons who make up Vladimir Putin's retinue are already rubbing their hands in anticipation of this course of events. The 10 or 15 individuals who rule Russia nowadays, her current Politburo, also own Russia through their direct or indirect control of most of her oil and gas companies. How high might the price of oil go? To $200, $300 a barrel?
Too much in their lives depends on that number -- the regime's stability, their role on the world stage, their personal wealth. They will not repeat the mistake of past Soviet leaders who passively watched the oil price fall. They have, after all, plenty of scope for influencing the situation in the Middle East.
Every step of Moscow's Iranian policy in recent years has been aimed at moving events in this direction. By blocking or completely watering down Security Council resolutions on Iran, Moscow has facilitated Iran's nuclear program. By supplying Iran with TOR missile installations and negotiating over possible delivery of the more cutting-edge S-300 air-defence system, Russia is effectively hurrying Israel toward having to undertake a military solution of the problem. After the Russian anti-aircraft installations to protect Iran's nuclear sites are fully commissioned, a military strike by Israel will no longer be feasible; but the alternative to a preventive strike is to see nuclear weapons and their means of delivery placed in the hands of someone who, Israel believes, wants to see a "Final Solution" of the "Jewish Problem." This is totally unacceptable to the Jewish state and, if Iran does not halt its nuclear program, a preventive strike is highly probable.
There are moderates in the Iranian leadership prepared to negotiate the discontinuing of industrial enrichment of uranium in return for a guarantee of international deliveries of nuclear fuel, but the recent kerfuffle with Russia over payment for the construction of Bushehr has greatly undermined their position. Moscow, in any case, made no demand that enrichment of uranium should be halted before deliveries of fuel were resumed. That would have been constructive and would have strengthened the hand of the moderates.
Mr. Lavrov indignantly rejected any such approach and insisted that the problem was purely a misunderstanding about payment. Iran paid up, deliveries are being restarted, and the conclusion drawn from the incident by the Iranian establishment is wholly in favour of continuing with its nuclear project. The influential Iranian newspaper Resalat commented, "Russia's behaviour is the best reason why Iran must insist on enriching uranium and producing nuclear fuel itself . . . You can't spend billions of dollars [on building a power plant] and then have to beg others for fuel."
As regards the motivation behind Russia's behaviour in this recent financial dispute, the Iranian side understand that well and commented derisively.
When the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Agency, Sergey Kirienko, complained that "since the middle of January we have not receive a single kopek," his Iranian counterpart replied sarcastically, "It is true. We have never paid Mr. Kirienko a single kopek. Or a ruble either. For the past 15 years, we have been paying the Russians in dollars."
The nuances of how the Russian capitalist ministers behave may change, but their strategic aim remains unchanged. Moscow has consistently been the political, and now also the military, umbrella for the mullahs who are rushing to get their hands on nuclear weapons. The Kremlin fully understands that this will inevitably lead to military conflict. The war in Iraq has brought the Putin regime handsome political and economic dividends. Moscow is hoping that the feast will continue.