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Russia's Role in Iran and Iraq

Author: Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies
June 3, 2002
The New York Times


President Bush and President Vladimir Putin of Russia made a little history when they signed the Treaty of Moscow to cut the nuclear arsenals of both nations. Yet the principles they agreed on were little different from what Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin had agreed on countless times in the past: nuclear arms reductions, cooperation between Russia and NATO, solidarity against 21st century threats, increased trade and investment, and so on. What the new leaders add is the political strength and authority to make these ideas real. Seventy-percent approval ratings have their uses.

Now Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin have to turn to problems on which their predecessors could not agree. Iran and Iraq top the list. Mr. Putin is politically stronger than Mr. Yeltsin ever was, and he may be more willing to accommodate the United States on these issues, too. But it won't be easy. Organized Russian trade and economic interests -- as powerful a force in Russian policy today as ideology was in the past -- stand in his way. Iran and Iraq have created problems in Russian-American relations for years. In the last decade both have had good relations with Russia while the United States has considered them enemies. American officials have long complained that Russian diplomats shield Iraq from pressure in the United Nations. And George Tenet recently told Congress that Iran still gets "significant" Russian help on long-range missiles and nuclear weapons.

President Bush has two advantages in pushing for Russian cooperation that President Clinton did not have. The new amity between Moscow and Washington, which Mr. Putin surely wants to preserve, gives him reason to help us. And Mr. Bush's strong rhetoric makes plain that for him Iran and Iraq stand above all other problems.

So Mr. Putin is repositioning himself -- but only a little. Russian diplomats, who last year blocked revisions to the international sanctions imposed on Iraq, have joined with the United States to put a revised program in place. Where they used to say Iraq needs assurances that sanctions would be lifted if Iraq met international demands, the Russians now emphasize Iraq's obligation to show that it has no weapons of mass destruction. Russian commentators say the Kremlin knows how stupid it would be to wait too long to switch sides.

Russia's handling of Iran also hints at change. After Mr. Bush's "axis of evil" speech in January, Mr. Putin quickly canceled a visit to Moscow by the Iranian foreign minister. Recently he broke with Tehran on territorial control of the Caspian Sea, siding for the first time with other energy-producing states in the region. And in Moscow, Mr. Putin offered what President Bush called "comforting" assurances about safeguards for the nuclear reactor Russia is building in Iran in the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr.

These steps are a start, but they do not wrest control from Russian domestic interests that benefit most from keeping Russian policy on Iran and Iraq as it is.

Russian companies have by far the largest share of Iraqi trade under the United Nations' oil-for-food program, and Iraqi officials admit this favoritism has only one purpose: to buy Russian support. Saddam Hussein has also offered Russian companies the rights to vast future energy development projects -- worth, Russians boast, as much as $60 billion.

That's why Russian oil and gas companies and major exporters to Iraq want Mr. Putin to maintain Iraq's favor by making sure that inspections do not threaten Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, the Russian nuclear-power industry wants him to keep Iran's favor by making sure restrictions at Bushehr do not block covert nuclear cooperation. So far both groups are getting what they want.

Russian officials tell Americans they are ready to discuss ways to insure that the Bushehr reactor doesn't help Iran's nuclear weapons program. But the offer is irrelevant as long as Russia provides Iran dangerous nuclear assistance outside of the Bushehr project -- and denies it. The Bush administration may not be willing to put up with double-dealing on this issue for very long.

Mr. Putin can't be happy with the box he is in. If he yields to pressure from Mr. Bush, he gives an opening to critics who say he lets Washington push him around. But rejecting American concerns, which some of his advisers clearly favor, takes the shine off a relationship that is now the centerpiece of Russian foreign policy.

Still, he may feel a little less squeezed by Mr. Bush than he did before the recent summit. In Moscow, President Bush showed that he is not demanding an immediate solution on Iran and won't berate Mr. Putin about it in public. And Russia is under less pressure on Iraq while the United States weighs its options for dealing with Saddam Hussein.

Yet Mr. Putin can't draw much comfort from this reprieve. Having seen the Clinton-Yeltsin relationship decline, he knows the difference between a real partnership and one that limps along with key geopolitical issues unresolved.

There is a way to ease Mr. Putin's predicament that could help him avert a clash with Washington without seeming to embrace American policy outright: He can close the gap between Russian actions and Russian rhetoric.

If Russian diplomats became unyielding advocates of an exhaustive and unconditional inspections regime in Iraq -- and showed they meant it -- they would not be doing Washington's bidding but carrying out their own stated policy. And if Mr. Putin stopped letting the Russian nuclear-power establishment provide dangerous technology to Iran -- something he says he opposes -- he would only be enforcing official Russian policy.

Neither Tehran nor Baghdad will like Russian policies that mean what they say. Saddam Hussein may retaliate by ending the favoritism Russian companies now enjoy. The Iranians may say that if the flow of illicit technology is cut off they'll cut back their legitimate trade with Russia, too.

Standing up to Russian business interests will carry political costs for Mr. Putin. But by doing so, he can enhance American confidence in the new partnership with Russia -- perhaps enough to get Washington to discuss how Russia's economic sacrifices should be recognized.

Iran and Iraq have taken a toll on Russian-American relations for a long time. Mr. Putin has a chance to break this pattern. Unless he does, we may remember the summit for its promise of an alliance that might have been -- but wasn't.

Stephen Sestanovich is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international diplomacy at Columbia.

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