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Russia and China Side With Iran over IAEA Nuclear Report

Image of Map of Iran Covered by Stylized Rendition of Sweeping Radar Scope With Superimposed Radioactivity Symbol
Moscow and Bejing have criticized the new International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear program released on November 8, which contains disturbing evidence of Iran's experimentation with specific "weaponization" technologies needed to put a viable nuclear explosive device together. The annex to the IAEA report lists Iran's experiments with designing and manufacturing "nuclear triggers" and sophisticated high-precision conventional explosives needed to initiate a nuclear detonation. Why is Russia siding with Iran on an issue as clear-cut as Teheran's clandestine work on nuclear warhead design and manufacturing? Why would Russia seek to undermine and politicize the IAEA as it promotes a world order based on international law? Is it really hoping to gain leverage over the United States? The report marks the first time the IAEA directly linked Iran's nuclear program, which Teheran claims is purely civilian and energy-related, to weapons production. The warhead work contradicts Tehran's obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Leaks of the IAEA report before it was published spurred intense speculation that Israel was considering a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations.

While the United States, Great Britain and France cited the IAEA report a justification for tougher international measures against Iran, Russia and China sharply criticized the report as containing little new evidence, while seeking to block the publication of its annex that listed specific weapons-related work by Iran with the help of some "former Soviet nuclear scientists."
Moscow said the report's publication would damage the prospects for a step-by-step negotiated process, pushed by Russia since mid-2011, under which existing sanctions would be eased in exchange for action by Iranian authorities to dispel international concerns. The Russian Foreign Ministry has ruled out any new sanctions against Iran.

President Dmitry Medvedev's endorsement of UN sanctions against Iran, proposed by the Barack Obama administration, has been highlighted as one of the key achievements of the United States-Russia "reset." Now, with the "reset" under heavy Republican criticism in Washington and with Vladimir Putin's scheduled return to the Kremlin, Moscow has little incentive to go along with Western calls for more pressure on Iran.

More importantly, with the prolonged stalemate over the IAEA report, Moscow could be seeking additional leverage in relations with Washington, as well as a boost in its influence in the region heavily damaged by the unrest of the Arab Spring and the collapse of the regimes friendly to Moscow, such as Libya's.

Why is Russia siding with Iran on an issue as clear-cut as Teheran's clandestine work on nuclear warhead design and manufacturing ­ a gross violation of its NPT obligations? Why would Russia seek to undermine and politicize the IAEA as it promotes a world order based on international law? Is it really hoping to gain leverage over the United States by flouting Washington's concerns over Iran, just to move closer to Washington in exchange for further concessions? And what could such concessions be? Could this be a new agreement on missile defense, already proposed by Moscow? Would such a trade-off be feasible? Or is it hoping to prepare the ground for Putin's triumphant return to the international scene as Russia's president who would defy pessimistic expectations by returning Russia to a cooperative posture on Iran? What could Moscow hope to gain in terms of enhancing its regional influence and improving relations with Teheran?

Alexander Rahr, Director, Berthold-Beitz Center For Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Central Asia Studies, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin

In his meeting with members of the Valdai Club on November 11, Vladimir Putin warned of a possible conflict between Moscow and Washington over the issue of missile defense.

Russia continues to see Washington's plans to install missile defense on European territory as a direct threat to its security interests. If no compromise on missile defense will be found, Russia and the United States may end up in a new Cold War confrontation.

Moscow reminds Washington of its offer to cooperate jointly on missile defense, for example in Azerbaijan. Putin had suggested modernizing the former Soviet radar installation in Gabala in order to jointly monitor the airspace over Iran and Pakistan. The United States should have responded positively.

For the first time, Russia ­ by offering the West such cooperation on missile defense ­ positioned itself militarily on the side of the West vis-à-vis Iran. A future confrontation seems inevitable if no trade-off is achieved. Moscow's distancing itself from the conclusions of the IAEA report is directed toward negotiations with the United States on such a trade-off on missile defense.

Russia clearly fears Iran's nuclear program because an Iranian nuclear bomb will threaten Russia probably more than the West. At the same time, Russia fears further encircling of its territory by NATO and the United States even more. Moscow hates to see a new pro-American Shah regime in Teheran. Moscow fears that the real goal of the Western military involvement in the so-called Arab Spring in the Islamic world is the destruction of the Mullah regime in Iran.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

Tehran's credibility regarding its nuclear technology program is now even lower after the publication of the latest IAEA report. To provide unqualified diplomatic support to Iran now creates a risk for Moscow of appearing as either foolish or indirectly assisting the mendacity of an unreliable neighbor.

However, after the quick collapse of Washington's myth about weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, nuclear weapons accusations against Iran can be challenged, at least rhetorically and "pro-forma." Such is the cost of lies that are exposed. Now, every disclosure about Iran must be sensitive to the well-remembered scandal about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

In addition to a "reset" that has yielded less than what Russia had expected, there are other past and present grievances that Russia might nurse. There is the broken promise not to expand NATO toward the borders with Russia. There are the lies about the events in Georgia in August 2008, when Western intelligence had very clear on-the-ground data that Mikheil Saakashvili had initiated an attack against people whom he claimed to be his own fellow citizens. And yet Washington and some Western allies officially denounced it as an "unprovoked attack by Russia." There is the hostile debate in U.S. Congress during the ratification of the latest START treaty. There is American insistence to surround Russian airspace with anti-ballistic launchers, upsetting nuclear deterrence. There is the thoroughly embarrassing 18-year-long process to admit Russia into the WTO. There is the Jackson-Vanik amendment, still not repealed and unlikely to disappear in a Republican U.S. Congress. There are the recent visa blacklists and a generally restrictive visa application process for Russian citizens who visit the United States. There is the shaming of Russia with the arrests of former Soviet "moles" in the United States, practically on the next day after president Medvedev's visit.

It is very likely that Russia does not see much benefit in being more attentive even to American authentic worries in the region. On the other hand, there is the opinion of some observers that Russia's current practices in the Middle East, inherited from the Soviet Union, are not productive for Russia, either.

The Soviet Union supported Middle Eastern socialist regimes politically and materially, for the sake of ideology and not because of "Soviet national interests" (the Soviet Union was never a nation-state, but a self-defined "state of a new type," built by a political party and dedicated to Marxist ideology, not the interests of any particular nation, including the majority ­ Russians). While the Soviet Union spent enormous political and physical capital to sustain Middle Eastern "allies," these did not reciprocate in a commensurate manner. In fact, these "allies" saw the Soviet Union as an "easy mark" (in swindler parlance) that would yield much tangible treasure in exchange for some vague commitments to "socialism," "anti-imperialism," "internationalism" and "friendship."

In fact, one would wonder how much Moscow gets in tangible reciprocal support from Teheran, beyond the routine declarations of platonic love, of the kind listed above. Certainly, if Russia's leadership is truly pragmatic as it claims to be, an unsentimental cost-benefit review is needed for all of Moscow's relationships in the Middle East, in particular with regimes that have vociferously and repeatedly described their most truculent wishes toward their neighbors ­ who are Russia's valued partners in the world community. Such review should explicitly exclude ex-Soviet experts on the region, due to their possible bias and probable rootedness in the now distant decades of their youth.

It is doubtful that Russia's position in the Iranian nuclear problem is a negotiating tactic. More likely, it is an emotional and ultimately non-productive expression of nostalgia and frustration.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington, DC

Russia's policies on Iran and Syria provide a spectacle of repetitive damage by Russia to its own national interests: the interest in stability, the interest in preventing the further rise and empowerment of Islamism, the interest in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and particularly in stopping them from getting into extremist and Islamist hands.

Russian policy on Iran and Syria runs directly counter to all of these vital interests. In Syria, as earlier in Libya, Russia is promoting civil war and the strengthening of Islamist forces: by ignoring reality, dragging the conflict out, and giving the regimes time to recuperate and organize their forces against the people, ensuring that the conflict degenerates into a full-scale civil war when it could have been a relatively quick successful uprising in both countries; by making every effort to minimize Western intervention so that the fighting is left largely to the Islamists; and by Russia's further insistence on Western withdrawal as fast as possible from Libya, just when it was needed to help stabilize the new order, avert further civil war, and reduce the unnaturally large role gained by Islamists in the protracted fighting.

All this damage is being done in the name of these same Russian interests in stability and anti-Islamism. Apparently, the Kremlin is saying this without any sense of irony; it deploys "stability" as a fixed talking point without bothering to check whether it is actually promoting stability.

Meanwhile, Russia is doing nothing to oppose Islamism in places where its voice could be constructive. It could support the Egyptian army in its present efforts to preserve its historic, crucial role in the political system against the Islamists and democrats who want to eliminate that special role. Its elimination will obviously benefit the Islamists. It would be an honest way for Russia to thumb its nose at America ­ a serious criticism of American policy as one of democratic dogmatism and naïveté, a criticism that for once would seem to conform to Russia's actual interests, and to conform to moral imperatives no less valid than the American democratic ones.

If Russia were to make such honest criticisms, and do it consistently, there would be a chance of a genuine dialogue between Russia and the West. Instead, Russia repeatedly does the opposite. It raises its points against the West almost solely when they are merely sarcastic and destructive to the West and to Russia's own interests.

There is no pressure on Russia to destroy its interests. It is obvious that it means isolating itself internationally, both in the Mideast and in the West. It means standing out like a sore thumb ­ a sick player in the international system. This provides a clue to an ideological factor: the self-image of standing up heroically against the naive international liberal view, no matter how near-universal and obviously right the international liberal view may be in the particular case at hand.

Mixed in with this is the cynicism about the "double standards" of the West with its ideals, a cynicism inherited from the communist era when every schoolchild learned that "bourgeois democracy" is "hypocritical" and a formalistic fraud, because it serves the interests of the rich (and, according to the ideology, doesn't serve anyone else's interest).

Little do Russians suspect that this cynical attitude, which they imbibed in their Soviet childhood, is just silly. Of course the West, or any power, should make sure it is sustaining and securing its strategic positions even while it tries to advance its moral goals a notch; otherwise, those goals would quickly be left hanging in the air without support.

A rational, nationally-interested Russian elite would be calling on the West to start acting more consistently on its legitimate double standards, specifically making sure to secure its baseline interests in stability and moderation in the Middle East, and keeping the Islamists out of power. Instead, Russia has consistently joined the Islamists in denouncing the West at every turn for double standards. And the fact that brings all these contradictions together into a semblance of psychological consistency is that the resentment is always aimed at the stronger power: the West and its global leadership position. No one cares about the logic of it, or whether the accuser isn't guilty of far more extreme and less justifiable double standards (as is usually in fact the case); the phrase "double standards" has become a routine code word for "blame the West." And so we arrive at an approximate description of the entrenched ideology- mentality of much of the Russian elite: one of resentment and polemic against the West, and a desire to harm it without regard for Russia's actual interests in the matter at hand, whether in Iran or Syria or elsewhere; giving full regard instead to the psychological interest of some Russians in "sticking it" to the West.

It is, obviously, disappointing. It is also harmful. To the world, to the West, and to Russia itself.


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