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Kuchins: Russians Working Hard to Resolve Iranian Nuclear Crisis

Interviewee: Andrew Kuchins, Director and Senior Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 30, 2007

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Andrew C. Kuchins, a long-time expert on Russia, says despite worsening U.S.-Russian relations, Russian officials are working very hard to “to talk the Iranians down and out of a nuclear weapons program.” He says the recent meeting between President Vladimir Putin in Tehran with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the sudden visit of Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Tehran all demonstrate Moscow’s efforts to defuse the crisis. “The Russians are really quite close to us on Iran and they are almost as fed up with the failure of the Iranians to be more compliant with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on their nuclear program,” he says.

You’ve just come back from another trip to Moscow. What sense did you get about U.S.-Russian relations?

The term “U.S.-Russian relations” reminds me of an old phrase of Bismarck—“Russia is never as strong as it seems nor as weak as it seems.” I think when we look at U.S.-Russian relations over the last fifteen years or so, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I don’t think they’re ever as good as some people think or as bad as others think. Certainly right now the mood in the bilateral relationship is as bad as it’s been in a long time, and I think the press reporting makes it out to be relatively negative, but I think on some things we’re still getting a reasonable level of cooperation, particularly on Iran.

In a recent press conference, President Bush characterized the U.S.-Russian relationship in a different way. He said: we disagree on a lot of things, we agree on some things, and one of those things is Iran. He never put the balance that way before.

Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Tehran about three weeks ago and met with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—which I thought was significant since Khamenei is the top Iranian leader who rarely meets foreign officials—and then came back to Moscow and had a brief meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, who obviously was pushing the Iran issue pretty strongly. Now I see Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Iran. What do you think the Russians want to do on Iran?

I think the Russians would love to talk the Iranians down and out of a nuclear weapons program. And to be viewed as the mediator or intermediary would help to facilitate that. Now not only did Putin meet with Olmert right after going to Tehran, but in the week before going to Tehran he met with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who came to Moscow, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who also went to Moscow later in the week, and then on the day before he left for Tehran, he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

My sense is that he was fully briefed on the U.S. and German positions on Iran and, I don’t know precisely what he carried to Khamenei, but I do agree that it’s very significant he met with him. I think the reporting on that trip, as well as the Rice and Gates trip to Moscow, which was so negative and critical, got it wrong. The Russians are really quite close to us on Iran and they are almost as fed up with the failure of the Iranians to be more compliant with the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on their nuclear program.

If you read the Tehran press, at least in the English language versions, they are now treating Russia as their great ally. I guess this is because Putin has been opposed to any military action against Tehran and generally wary of punitive sanctions.

Well, I think that is a fair assessment on the part of the Iranian press because I think the last thing Putin wants to see happen is for there to be a military strike or, even worse, a larger military conflict in Iran. Putin doesn’t want to see Iran get a nuclear weapon, but I don’t think he and the Russian elite are willing to spend the kind of blood and treasure that others, notably we and the Israelis, are willing to do to prevent Iran from becoming closer to getting a nuclear capability.

I interviewed last week an Iran expert, Karim Sadjadpour, who thought that the U.S. sanctions announced last week were meant as a signal to the Russians and the Chinese that the United States was losing patience with Iran. Do you see that as part of the effort to get the Russians even more involved with Iran?

Yes, I think so. We have an important point coming up when the next report on Iran comes to the Security Council in November, and that would likely be the trigger for the next round of discussions over the third round of sanctions in Iran. I would presume that, particularly when Rice and Gates were in Moscow, they had a pretty open discussion with Putin about where they saw that going. Now the Russians have come along in the first two rounds of sanctions. They’re obviously not as inclined towards sanctions as we are, or even our European allies, but we are going to be coming to an important moment in the next few weeks when we have a discussion about the next round of sanctions, if we do.

Now let me say one thing about the trust issue. I really don’t think there’s that much trust in the relationship between Moscow and Iran.

I remember two years ago the Russians were offering a compromise to supply Iran with enriched uranium for the “peaceful uses” of nuclear energy, and the Iranians turned it down, saying they can’t trust anybody from outside, including the Russians. I guess the history of Iranian-Russian relations has never been that smooth, has it?

Not really. I mean it was kind of significant that when Putin went to Iran that was the first trip of any Russian leader to Iran since 1943 when Stalin and Roosevelt met with Churchill at the Tehran Conference. But the Russians obviously have clear commercial interests with Iran. They would be happy to build more nuclear reactors there, they would be happy to be more involved in the development of the Iranian energy sector, and they have some common geopolitical interests, in that they tend to be opposed to the similar kinds of radical Islamic terrorist groups in Chechnya as well as Central Asia.

On the domestic scene in Russia, the campaigning is set to begin for the Duma [parliamentary] elections on December 2, and I guess it’s all Putin right now. The elections are going to be seen as a referendum on Putin, right?

Right. With Putin casting his support for the United Russia party and being on the top of the ballot for that party, that really looks to ensure that United Russia is going to win a smashing majority in the next Duma.

And that’s going to knock out a lot of the other parties, at least under that rule that you have to have at least seven percent of the votes to have a seat?

If the elections were held today, it would likely just be the United Russia Party and the Communists. You know there was this other so called “party of power” created, “Just Russia,” that was the Kremlin’s effort to promote a multiparty system, if you will, but with Putin’s announcement of his support for United Russia, the support for Just Russia has really fallen off.

Putin’s been to Portugal to meet with European Union people and there’s been a lot of discussion about the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, which Russia is now saying they’re going to pull out of by December 12. Is that really going to happen, do you think?

It could. My understanding from discussions in Moscow and also here with U.S. government officials is that actually the discussions about the CFE and compromises about moving forward on that were fairly constructive. That might be averted. I think. What is unlikely to be averted is the independence of Kosovo. I’m more skeptical that the Russians are going to change their position on that—they have a lot more invested in that position.

How does Kosovo become independent? Does it just declare itself independent?

Well it declares itself independent and then it would be recognized by whoever recognizes it. Presumably that would be the United States, and we would want as many EU members as possible to recognize its independence as well. But in a couple of the talks I had in Moscow last week, I got the sense that there’s a little more vacillation on the part of the Europeans to support this. A concern is that if there is not a resolution of Kosovo’s independence it could start again a conflict between the [Kosovars] and the Serbs. It’s imaginable that it could happen and the Russians don’t want that.

There are a lot of things in flux right now at the UN Security Council, as well as in Moscow itself and in Tehran. I would be very curious to see what happens, because the IAEA group is in Tehran now, trying to get further information for a report on Iranian compliance. And the Iranian President Ahmedinejad said, at least publicly: no talks, nothing. He’s not going to deal.

He may say that, but the intensity of diplomacy going on around Iran for the last few weeks—and I would expect for the next few weeks—is really quite extraordinary. And for sure, the Israeli strike on the alleged Syrian nuclear facility has had a big impact. It was meant to have a big impact, to show seriousness about the possibility of some kind of military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities if they don’t back down.

The intensity of diplomacy suggests to me that we’re getting close to a point where the rubber hits the road.

By that you mean what? Do you think the United States might do something militarily?

I wouldn’t be surprised by it, for sure. I’m sure that Bush does not want to have as part of his legacy having gone to war with the state that doesn’t have nuclear weapons [Iraq] while allowing Iran to acquire nuclear capabilities during his watch.

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