Russia's Double Game

By Kenneth R. Timmerman
| March 23, 2006

The talks at the United Nations over Iran's nuclear weapons program have stalled, and the culprit is clear: the Russian government of ex-KGB officer Vladmir Putin.

Russia has chosen to help the Islamic Republic of Iran buy more time to complete its nuclear weapons programs, turning down repeated U.S. and European offers to soften a UN Security Council statement during yet another round of negotiations in New York on Wednesday.

"Why anybody in Moscow thinks it's in their interest to have a nuclear-capable ballistic missile-equipped Iran near their southern border is a mystery to me," U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said last week.

And yet, that's precisely what the Russians are doing.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the problem was that the draft UN statement "includes points that effectively lay the groundwork for sanctions against Iran."

So for the Russians, it's okay to "summon" or "admonish" or "suggest" that Iran changes its behavior. It's just not okay to do anything about it.

Mr. Lavrov wants to defer yet again to the International Atomic Energy Agency, and keep the Security Council out of it. But the IAEA by its very statute is not the competent authority for putting pressure on Iran. It can gather information, inspect, place seals on Iranian facilities - until the Iranians remove them. But it has no enforcement powers.

Russia is clearly playing a double game. On the one hand, Lavrov and Putin do not want to create undue tension between Moscow and Washington, so they maintain the ploy of civil negotiations. On the other, they want to ensure that Iran has enough time to complete its nuclear weapons plans.

How do we know this? Because the Iranians themselves make no bones about their strategy. Former Iranian nuclear negotiators Hassan Rouhani and Hosein Musavian have both said publicly that the three years Iran gained through its negotiations with the IAEA since late 2002 have allowed it to complete a key uranium conversion plant and to build hundreds of enrichment centrifuges in secret.

Iran announced earlier this month plans to install 3,000 enrichment centrifuges at its plant in Natanz this fall. Just this week, reports surfaced that a pilot enrichment cascade of 164 centrifuges was now up and running, giving Iran a "live" uranium enrichment capability where it can test technology for use in other, clandestine plants.

So why are the Russians so intent on helping Iran go nuclear?

The key can be found in a 1995 document, prepared for the official think tank of the General Staff of Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, which I obtained from Congressman Curt Weldon. I published key portions of the document in the appendix of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran.

The broad-ranging study proposed a new strategy for countering the "main external threats" to the Russian Federation. Despite the end of the Cold War, the study identified the United States as "the main external force potentially capable of creatin'g a threat to Russian Federation military security and to Russias economic and political interests."

Most importantly, the document urged Russian leaders to form a strategic alliance with Iraq and Iran, as a means of countering U.S. advances in the oil-rich Caspian region.

In addition to selling "military nuclear and missile technologies to countries such as Iraq and Iran," the study advised that Russia could enter into "direct military alliance& above all with Iran, within the framework of which a Russian troop contingent and tactical nuclear weapons could be stationed on the shores of the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz."

In January, Jane's Defense Weekly reported that Middle East intelligence sources had confirmed a story appearing in the German newspaper Bild on Dec. 16, 2005, alleging that Iran had acquired medium-range Russian missiles through North Korea.

The SS-N-6 submarine-launched missiles use a storable liquid propellant, making them more survivable than Iran's Shahab-3, which requires "an hour-long exposure while fueling before launch," Jane's quoted a senior defense source as saying.

U.S. intelligence sources privately confirmed these reports to me.

This and other intelligence on Russia's nuclear and missile ties to Iran provides a troubling backdrop to Russia's stonewall diplomacy at the UN.

Russia will earn billions of dollars from Iran should current plans to build six additional nuclear power plants go through. Billions more are being generated from direct arms sales. And every time war scares increase the price of oil, Vladimir Putin's bankers go ka-ching as windfall profits from Russia's own oil exports result.

But the Moscow-Tehran axis goes beyond just money. It is strategic. And this is where the Bush administration needs to focus its efforts.
Over the past two weeks, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns has seized control of the negotiations at the United Nations, virtually sidelining ambassador John Bolton.

As the lead U.S. negotiator, designated by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, Burns reminded reporters yesterday of his negotiating principles.

"All sides need to be flexible. I don't know how long it's going to take. But eventually, I think that these countries are going to agree to a presidential statement."

A "presidential statement" from the UN Security Council is a very weak document. Essentially, it's a bare statement of principles that will include nothing objectionable to any of the 15 members of the Council (the Permanent Five plus 10 rotating members.). In other words, it means negotiating down to the least common denominator.
This month, the Council is chaired by Argentina, which rarely votes with us on key issues.
Also among the rotating members are Chile, Ghana, Congo and Greece.

Much more potent would be a UN Security Council resolution, which must come to a vote and requires approval by a majority of Council members, not unanimity.

Despite protests and abstentions, the Security Council approved seventeen such resolutions demanding that Saddam Hussein comply with UN disarmament demands. A single resolution demanding that Iran do the same is the bare minimum we should expect from the Council - and from the Bush administration.

If Russia wants to play a double game on Iran, so be it. It's time to put Russia's intentions to the test. Allowing Putin and his team to buy more time for Iran to complete its nuclear facilities is not an acceptable alternative.

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