Russia worried about a nuclear Iran, but leery of US sanctions

Russia is wary of any international action similar to the UN resolution on Libya, which parlayed a mandate to protect civilians into a drive for regime change.

IHS Jane's Analysis/GeoEye Satellite Image/AP/File
In this September 2009 file satellite image provided by GeoEye shows a facility under construction inside a mountain located about 20 miles north northeast of Qom, Iran. In a statement Tuesday, as news emerged that Iran has begun enriching uranium in a mountainside bunker near the holy city of Qom, Russia's Foreign Ministry agreed with Western perceptions that Iran is being uncooperative in efforts to ascertain the extent of its nuclear program and ensure it falls within legal limits.

Russia is hedging its bets as tensions flare in the Middle East, leery of US intentions but also loath to see Iran develop a nuclear weapon.

Moscow is offering tepid support for US criticisms of Iran's alleged drive to obtain nuclear weapons but also taking practical steps to reassure Tehran that it too opposes the West's harsh sanctions and covert military pressures that look increasingly like a march to war.      

Experts say Russia is unlikely to acquiesce to any measures that look, to Moscow's eyes, like a replay of last year's United Nations Security Council resolution on Libya that parlayed a mandate to protect civilians into a drive for regime change. The US has sought stronger Security Council action against not only Iran but also Syria, where the Assad regime's crackdown on a 10-month uprising has resulted in death of at least 5,000 Syrians.

"Russia supported various Western initiatives in the past, and the general consensus in Moscow is that they produced zero results for us," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Near Eastern Studies in Moscow. "The West has no credibility here anymore. Iran is a nearby neighbor for Russia, and a potentially dangerous one. We don't want it to get nuclear weapons, but at the same time we fear war would engulf the region in turmoil and spread to Russian territory in the northern Caucasus. . .  The view is that Russia must chart its own course based on its own interests; if we don't look out for ourselves, who will?"

Moscow calls for 'mutually respectful dialogue'

In a statement Tuesday, as news emerged that Iran has begun enriching uranium in a mountainside bunker near the holy city of Qom, Russia's Foreign Ministry agreed with Western perceptions that Iran is being uncooperative in efforts to ascertain the extent of its nuclear program and ensure it falls within legal limits.

"We have to acknowledge that Iran is continuing to ignore the international community's demands on dispelling concerns about its nuclear activities, including through (refusing to suspend) the construction of an enrichment facility near the city of Qom," the statement said.

But though Russia expressed "regret and worry" over Iran's nuclear moves, it coupled that with an urgent call for the resumption of diplomatic negotiations on Iran's nuclear program and an appeal to all sides to refrain from "ill-considered and abrupt moves." Moscow's statement insisted that that "any problems related to the Iranian nuclear program must be resolved exclusively through negotiations and the mutually respectful dialogue on the basis of gradual and reciprocal steps."   

It's probably no coincidence that this week also saw Moscow and Tehran announce that they are abandoning the use of US dollars in bilateral trade, a move that will help to insulate Iran from falling dollar income as US-backed sanctions against its oil exports kick in.

Also on Tuesday, Russian media triumphantly reported the arrival of the Admiral Kuznetsov, Russia's only operational aircraft carrier, and accompanying warships in the Syrian port of Tartous, a visit whose message seems aimed at discouraging any talk of Libya-style Western intervention in strife-torn, Iran-allied Syria.

Putin vs. Medvedev

Experts say that the careful language masks a debate among Moscow policymakers that has see-sawed over the years between advocates of a pro-Western course and those who argue Russia should strike out on its own, or line up with other powers to challenge US hegemony, particularly in Asia.

In the 1990s then-President Boris Yeltsin secretly agreed with the Clinton administration to ban all arms sales to Iran, a deal that was subsequently repudiated by Vladimir Putin on the grounds that it brought no benefits to Russia. But after President Obama arrived in the White House, President Dmitry Medvedev steered Russia toward agreement with US policy again. He supported enhanced sanctions in the UN Security Council and even cut off Russian arms sales to Tehran as part of a more general "reset" of relations between Moscow and Washington.

The peak of Russia's cooperation with the West came in March 2011, when Medvedev ordered Russia's UN ambassador to abstain on Security Council Resolution 1973, which paved the way for the approval of the resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians facing repression from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. That prompted an unusual public argument between Medvedev and his prime minister, Mr. Putin, who accused him of caving in to Western demands.

With Putin almost certain to return to the Kremlin in March elections, the pendulum of Russian policy may be swinging back to a more skeptical view of US global designs.

"Putin believes that one of the main reasons Iran wants to obtain [nuclear weapons capability] is because of the policy of pressure conducted by the US and NATO against it," says Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser who's now vice president of the independent Russian Economic University in Moscow. "Putin believes the US may be actually trying to destabilize the Middle East, because that's what its current policies are objectively leading to. Russia fears that bombing Iran will lead to regional turmoil and unpredictable consequences... He thinks the solution is to negotiate with Iran by offering guarantees that the West will not promote regime change there, as it did in Libya."

Russia, Iran agree not to use US dollar for trade

Another sign that Russia may be going its own way on Iran is a decision, announced this week in Tehran, that Russia and Iran will henceforth use Russian rubles and Iranian rials in their bilateral trade, and eschew the US dollar.

Iran already sells oil to China and India in local currencies, but the deal with Russia could clear the way for an expansion of trade as sanctions-hit Iran, strapped for dollars, concentrates on the few partners who will trade on its terms.

"The impact of this is more symbolic than it is of economic consequence," says Timofey Bardachev of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "With this step, Russia and Iran underline their common agreement that one currency should not be dominating in the world, that it's time to end dependence on the US dollar. That's an important political statement."

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