Moscow's Iran Game

THE nuclear genie will certainly escape to Iran if Moscow goes ahead with a proposed sale of light-water reactors to Tehran.

Five years ago, such a development -- if it takes place -- would seem impossible. Welcome to a sobering new era of nuclear bargaining. While some specialists play down the threat of this sale, arguing that the proposed reactors produce less enriched plutonium, the point is that they do produce it. With these reactors, at some point Iran could collect fissile material, and make a bomb.

The Russians say they insist on the sale despite two salient points raised by Defense Secretary William Perry in a high-profile trip to Moscow this week: First, Iran is probably in no position to pay the Russians the $800 million to $1 billion cost of the reactors. Second, Secretary Perry gave Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev detailed intelligence showing that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons program -- purchasing sensitive equipment, attempting to buy uranium on the black market, and so on.

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While it is true that the US-backed shah of Iran had plans to build reactors, this was in a very different period, prior to the political ascendancy of the fundamentalist Shiite clerics.

Certainly, it does not serve Russia well to support the nuclear program of an unreliable partner on its border. Why would Moscow do so?

One possibility is that Moscow does not intend to follow through. Rather, Russia gains from its increased bargaining position with the United States. Hard thinkers in Moscow might assume that what US politicians of both parties want is a happy and satisfied consumer society without anything so dangerous as a nuclear weapon lurking on the horizon. They saw the White House negotiate a $4 billion deal to merely slow down North Korea's nuclear program. Perhaps cash-impoverished Russian officials want some of that action, to use the vernacular. If this constitutes a modified kind of nuclear blackmail -- that's just part of the game. Besides, the West seems willing to pay. Indeed, Mr. Perry came to Moscow loaded with perks and carrots.

Another strong possibility is that Russia is simply stringing both Iran and the West along -- giving both sides just a little of what they want.

The US made its pitch. The Russians ignored it, perhaps out of pride. Now the White House and allies have two options. Give Moscow more. Or do something unfamiliar -- get tough.

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