Russia sees chance to boost US ties
Obama's outreach to Iran lifts hopes that the US and Russia can find more common ground in their bids to get Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
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Many in the West interpret Iran's recent launch of a satellite, and a February report by International Atomic Energy Agency suggesting that it has accumulated enough enriched uranium to build an atomic bomb, as a dire sign of time running out. But Russia, which completed its contract to build Iran's first civilian nuclear power plant at Bushehr this month, argues that there is no discernible threat.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Russian Federation continues to believe that there are no signs of the [Iranian nuclear] program being switched toward goals, and that it is of an exclusively peaceful nature," deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov said Friday, following Obama's address.
"The main difference of approach is that Russia believes that there is still time to convince Iran to stop or at least interrupt its nuclear program, while the US thinks that time has almost run out," says Vladimir Sazhin, an expert at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
The Russian preference is for diplomacy, economic incentives, and security guarantees in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions, he adds. By contrast, the Bush administration favored isolation of Iran, tougher sanctions, and "keeping all options on the table," a euphemism for military force.
"Barack Obama has suggested the new and hopeful possibility of a direct dialogue between the US and Iran," Mr. Sazhin says. "If that came to pass, then it's quite conceivable that the US and Russia could sit around a table and work together to persuade the Iranians."
But an attempt by Obama to jumpstart cooperation with Russia over Iran earlier this month was angrily rebuffed. In a letter to Medvedev, Obama suggested the US might cancel plans to station antimissile weapons in Poland in exchange for an undisclosed Russian quid pro quo.
"No one sets conditions on these issues with tradeoffs, especially on the Iranian problem," Mr. Medvedev told journalists. "In any case, we are working closely with our American colleagues on Iran's nuclear program."
Russian experts say that the Kremlin is sensitive because it feels burned by past deals, especially a secret 1995 accord between then-Vice President Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in which Russia agreed to cease all arms exports to Iran after existing contracts ran out in exchange for being kept off US sanctions lists. There is little evidence that Russia abided by the bargain, and it was repudiated by the Kremlin administration of Vladimir Putin, which has gone on to sell advanced Tor-M1 antiaircraft missiles to Iran, and has concluded – but still not delivered on – a contract to provide long-range S-300 air defense systems.
"Russia feels that it can be an effective intermediary because of its political ties with Iran. We could do a lot to shape a productive dialogue between Tehran and the West," says Anton Khlopkov, director of the independent Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow. "But our ties with Iran are very important, and separate from our relationship with the US.... But from the Russian perspective, Iran is not for sale."