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Seeing Iranian Gains in the Caucasus

Author: Greg Bruno
September 12, 2008

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Fallout over Russia's military moves in Georgia has already sidelined (MSNBC) one area of nuclear cooperation between Washington and the Kremlin. Now, the chill has triggered speculation that a process of much more immediate importance—the UN Security Council's efforts to block Iran's uranium enrichment program—will suffer (CSMonitor)

Each fall for the last three years, the UN Security Council has ushered in a new round of sanctions. It has been prodded by the Bush administration and Western states concerned that Iran's program is a cover for a nuclear weapons program, a charge Iran denies. Russia, one of five permanent veto-wielding members of the Security Council, begrudgingly went along with each previous round of sanctions. But with Washington pushing for a fourth round of sanctions, Moscow has warned that this year may be different. In an August interview with CNN, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested Russian cooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue has run its course. Gary Samore, CFR director of studies and an expert in nonproliferation, sees the crisis in the Caucasus as the impetus. "The Georgia situation is going to tremendously complicate any efforts for the U.S. to form an effective coalition against Iran."

To be sure, Moscow appears to share Washington's desire to keep a bomb out of Iranian hands. CFR Senior Fellow Ray Takeyh and Nikolas Gvosdev of the U.S. Naval War College predict that Russia will continue to support (BosGlobe) international efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, if only because Moscow sees current policy as beneficial to its security and economic interests. Meanwhile, Russia continues to support Iran's civilian nuclear program. On September 8, the Russian state-run company assembling Iran's first nuclear plant announced that after five years of delay, the facility at Bushehr is nearing completion (AP). There are also reports Russia is considering increasing nuclear assistance to Iran. "Everything has changed since the war in Georgia," a source close to the Russian military told London's Sunday Times.

For Iran, the benefits of cozier ties with Russia are more than nuclear. Beyond disrupting UN sanctions efforts and facilitating Iran's nuclear reactor construction, Russia is also being courted as a supplier of military hardware (RIA Novosti), including sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Trade between Russia and Iran is also on the rise, hitting $2.2 billion in the first nine months of 2007 (RIA Novosti). (According to 2006 numbers from Iran's trade promotion organization, Russia ranked 14th on Iran's export list.) But as Financial Times Middle East editor Roula Khalaf notes, Iran is aware of the risks of siding with Russia. "It is not unthinkable that Moscow would eventually try to buy its way out of the European crisis by offering more forceful help on Iran," Khalaf writes. Iran has also maintained diplomatic relations with Georgia since 1992, most notably in the energy sector. For these reasons, argues an analyst for EurasiaNet, Iran has proceeded with caution in solidifying its pro-Moscow stance.

Whether Washington needs Moscow's cooperation to scale down the Iranian nuclear program is unclear. Charles D. Ferguson, CFR senior fellow for science and technology, says a client-producer relationship between Iran and the world's nuclear energy states could move the issue forward faster than sanctions ever could (CSMonitor). Nor is Iran resigned to hanging up the diplomatic option (Reuters). But the aftermath of the Georgia conflict has clearly changed the tone of the debate.

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