Iran’s balancing game
By Alexander Shumilin
The US wants to eliminate Iran’s nuclear threat. At some point, the White House might give the Pentagon the go-ahead to take out the Bushehr plant with air strikes. And that would blow the results of Russian-Iranian cooperation to smithereens
Events in and around Iran are unfolding at quite a pace. University professors have been joining their students in pro-democracy demonstrations in Tehran and other cities. More than 250 academics and writers have called on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to renounce his claim to be “God’s representative on earth.” And intellectuals have come out in favour of the democratic reforms advanced by liberal lawmakers last month.
The confrontation between conservative supporters of Iran’s clerical establishment, led by Ayatollah Khamenei, and their liberal opponents who back moderate President Mohammad Khatami, has spilled into the streets. The Iranian opposition is a myth no more. It consists of Khatami and his circle, a significant number of reform-minded legislators, intellectuals and students. In part, Ayatollah Khamenei was right when he accused the United States of fomenting the recent unrest in Iran. But Washington is just warming up. President George W Bush has so far limited himself to making statements of support for the demonstrating students, and Congress has only begun to consider the Iran Democracy and Freedom Support Act. The US-led occupation of neighbouring Iraq, on the other hand, has exerted a real destabilizing influence on Iran. Recent events in Iran have been music to the ears of the Bush administration. By backing the Iranian opposition, Washington could avoid the costs and risks of a large-scale military intervention.
The idea of “transforming Iran” by political and economic means would probably suit Europe as well. European concern over Tehran’s nuclear program rose sharply after IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei accused Iran of failing to comply with its nuclear safeguards agreement. If Iran were successful in building rocket-based nuclear weapons, Europe would be well within range. As would Russia. If Washington launches a “crusade” against Iran’s conservative clerics, the Europeans, chastened by their experience during the crisis in Iraq, would almost certainly lend their support. If that happens, Russia would find itself in a sticky situation.
Russia cannot afford, economically or politically, to abandon the $800 million light-water reactor it is helping to build in Bushehr, or to sever trade with Iran, worth some $1 billion per year. But confrontation with Washington is not an option either, especially as Russia would probably have to go it alone.
The time has come for Moscow to develop a coherent policy on Iran that takes into account the lessons of the crisis in Iraq. Primary among them, of course, is that if the Americans were to come up with the right strategy, they would probably get their way in Iran. In that case, the fate of Russia’s lucrative contracts in the country would be in the hands of the United States, just like our contracts in Iraq. During the Iraq crisis, Moscow first walked a tightrope between the United States and Europe, then began to criticize Washington in the civilized company of France, Germany and China. As a result, Russia avoided a direct political confrontation with the United States and was “forgiven” in the end. It is now clear that political will in Washington made the difference in preventing Iraqi energy officials from going through with cancelling LUKoil’s 1997 contract to develop the West Qurna oil fields. Recently it has emerged that Russian oil companies plan to step up their involvement in Iran. Stroitransgaz wants to get involved, and oil majors LUKoil, Yukos and Sidanko hope to export oil to Europe via Iran’s pipeline network.
There is a third important consideration: Iran’s possible push to develop nuclear weapons. Russian experts and officials have begun to warn that Iran should be considered a potential threat to our national security. It was no coincidence that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov issued a policy statement concerning Iran in New Delhi last week on the same day that ElBaradei called on Iran to allow more comprehensive IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Ten days before, an internal IAEA report claimed that Iran had failed to inform the agency about its use of nuclear material.
On Thursday, the IAEA gave Iran a chance to make amends, saying it expected Iran “to grant the agency all access deemed necessary” to determine if Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapons program. This, in turn, gave Moscow a chance to adjust its Iran policy based on IAEA allegations, recent events in Iran, and mounting pressure from Washington to break off its nuclear cooperation program. Russia’s revised line on Iran can be pieced together from the recent statements of various government officials. Iran remains a neighbour with whom Russia plans to cooperate, without taking sides in the country’s internal disputes. Nuclear cooperation should be permanently monitored by IAEA inspectors. Russia has no intention of helping Iran to develop nuclear weapons. Russia will continue to work with the United States to prevent the proliferation of WMD, and to pursue a dialogue on possible Russian oil exports to North America.
Russia’s position is balanced. Both Russia and the United States are currently throwing their weight behind the IAEA (Russia in order to “legitimise” its involvement in Iran). But the problem is that widespread disorder within Iran could radically alter US strategy. Washington understands that even a victory for Khatami’s supporters will not automatically spell victory for it in a country where anti-US sentiment remains strong. What’s more, Khatami is no less interested in developing the country’s nuclear programs than Khamenei. The United States wants to eliminate Iran’s “nuclear threat.” At some point, the White House might give the Pentagon the go-ahead to take out the Bushehr plant with air strikes. A battle plan has already been drawn up. And that would blow the results of Russian-Iranian cooperation to smithereens. —The Moscow Times
Alexander Shumilin, director of the Centre for Middle East Conflict Analysis at the USA. and Canada Institute, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times