How Iran's Nuclear Power Play Can Change Global Politics
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Tehran got the message -- that Putin was not an unconditional ally. Thus, in August 2006, the Russians landed a new deal for the construction and supervision of two new nuclear plants. This all means that the Iranian nuclear dossier simply cannot be solved without Russia. Simultaneously, by Putin's own framework, it's very clear in Moscow that a possible Israeli strike would make it lose a profitable nuclear client on top of a diplomatic debacle. Medvedev for his part is pursuing the same two-pronged strategy; stressing to Americans and Europeans that Russia does not want nuclear proliferation in the Middle East while stressing to Tehran that it needs Russia more than ever.
Another feature of Moscow's chessboard strategy -- never spelled out in public -- is to keep the cooperation with Tehran to prevent China from taking over the whole project, but without driving the Americans ballistic at the same time. As long as the Iranian nuclear program is not finished, Russia can always play the wise moderating role between Iran and the West.
Building up a civilian nuclear program in Iran is good business for both Iran and Russia for a number of reasons.
First of all, both are military encircled. Iran is strategically encircled by the US in Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and by US naval power in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. Russia has seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) gobbling up the Baltic countries and threatening to "annex" Georgia and Ukraine; NATO is at war in Afghanistan; and the US is still present, one way or another, across Central Asia.
Iran and Russia share the same strategy as far as the Caspian Sea is concerned. They are in fact opposed to the new Caspian states -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.
Iran and Russia also face the threat of hardcore Sunni Islam. They have a tacit agreement; for instance, Tehran has never done anything to help the Chechens. Then there's the Armenian issue. A de facto Moscow-Tehran-Erevan axis profoundly irks the Americans.
Finally, in this decade, Iran has become the third-largest importer of Russian weapons, after China and India. This includes the anti-missile system Tor M-1, which defends Iran's nuclear installations.
What's your axis?
So thanks to Putin, the Iran-Russia alliance is carefully deployed in three fronts -- nuclear, energy and weapons.
Are there cracks in this armor? Certainly.
First, Moscow by all means does not want a weaponized Iranian nuclear program. This spells out "regional destabilization". Then, Central Asia is considered by Moscow as its backyard, so for Iran to be ascendant in the region is quite problematic. As far as the Caspian goes, Iran needs Russia for a satisfactory juridical solution (Is it a sea or a lake? How much of it belongs to each border country?)
On other hand, Iran's new military dictatorship of the mullahtariat will react savagely if it ever had Russia fully against it in the UN Security Council. That would spell a rupture in economic relations -- very bad for both sides -- but also the possibility of Tehran supporting radical Islam everywhere from the southern Caucasus to Central Asia.
Under these complex circumstances, it's not so far-fetched to imagine a sort of polite Cold War going on between Tehran and Moscow.
From Russia's point of view, it all comes back to the "axis" -- which would be in fact Moscow-Tehran-Erevan-New Delhi, a counter-power to the US-supported Ankara-Tblisi-Telaviv-Baku axis. But there's ample debate about it even inside the Russian elite. The old guard, like former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, thinks that Russia is back as a great power by cultivating its former Arab clients as well as Iran; but then the so-called "Westernizers" are convinced that Iran is more of a liability.