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Fool Me Once: A New IAEA Report Gives Russia a Chance to Spurn the United States

File Photo of Iranian Uranium Conversion Facility
file photo
The International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday released a highly anticipated report on Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions, which includes previously undisclosed evidence of Iran's intentions to develop military nuclear technology. The United States and its partners in Europe are calling for tougher sanctions on Iran, but they're finding little support across the globe in Russia and China. While Russia was cajoled into approving a series of sanctions against Iran between 2006 and 2010, Russian Foreign Ministry officials this week have drawn a line in the sand, suggesting that sanctions should instead be lifted in exchange for Iranian cooperation. Debate is now raging over just what the IAEA report actually proves about Iran's nuclear program, and whether those findings should lead to a strengthening of sanctions against the Islamic republic. While many of the accusations are not new, more detailed sourcing and new evidence bolstered claims of Iran's continued research in nuclear weapons and in missile delivery systems.

The international reaction is, as expected, split. "For those who are cynical about Iranian intentions, any amount of proof is sufficient," said Karim Sadjadpour, a Carnegie Endowment analyst, reported The New York Times on Tuesday. "And for those who are cynical about U.S. intentions, no amount of proof is enough."

The United States and its European supporters, including France, Britain, and Germany, responded to the report by calling for new sanctions against Iran if the country doesn't respond to the allegations. Iran, meanwhile, has continued its time-honored tradition of "deny, deny, deny" when it comes to its nuclear program; Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rhetorically asked a crowd of supporters in central Tehran why the IAEA was "ruining its reputation for absurd U.S. claims."

As veto-holder in the UN Security Council, through which any UN sanctions would have to pass, Russia has said that sanctions would be seen as an "instrument of regime change." A Foreign Affairs Ministry communiqué released Tuesday called the report a "compilation of known facts, deliberately given a politicized slant."

Russia had already been building its support for Iran as news about the report broke on Monday. In response to more aggressive stances taken by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said a pre-emptive military strike on Iran was not out of the question, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would be a "very serious mistake, fraught with unpredictable consequences."

Russia's full-throttle support for Iran exhibits a warming in relations between the two powers, which have been strained in the past when Russia reluctantly supported U.N. sanctions on Iran between 2006 and 2010. After meetings yesterday between Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Baqueri, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Alexander Lukashevich said that Iran would be willing to negotiate a deal with the IAEA, but that further sanctions would be unacceptable, reported Bloomberg News. This may include a Russian backed plan to lift sanctions against Iran in exchange for greater cooperation with international inspectors.

While Russia has definite interests in maintaining relations with Iran, it also opposes what it sees as expanding U.S. influence in the Arab world, particularly after the "Arab Spring" and the war in Libya set a "worrying pattern of development," noted Pavel Baev, a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

Independent military analyst Alexander Golts said the Russian reaction to the report and its opposition to new sanctions were "entirely expected," as "after Libya, Russia has firmly returned to its stance against foreign interference in domestic affairs." Political ideals aside, however, he added that Russia was aiming to take the United States down a notch.

"Not entirely a long time ago, Russia stood together with the countries of the West [against Iran]. It's now moving away from that position and again becoming an advocate of Iran. I think that for Russia, which played the game of geopolitics since the 19th century, Iran is a card that can be played periodically in relations with the West. And the relative cooling of those relations means Russia will play the part of a spoiler to many Western initiatives," said Golts.

While Russia has limited economic ties with Iran, sanctions would be far more of a threat to the Chinese economy, noted Baev. Any sanctions that went further and touched the Iranian energy sector would also drag other regional powers, including Turkey, into the mix, he added, likely precluding strong support for sanctions in the UN.

Yet Russia's greater concern is that its voice will be ignored and that unilateral sanctions will be introduced in the United States or Europe without its consideration, continued Baev. "When the last round of sanctions was approved in the UN after very hard bargaining, just a couple of weeks later the United States and the European Union went forward with unilateral sanctions. Moscow was afraid it was losing its voice, and that's continuing now," he said.

What remains to be seen is how hard the United States and its allies will press on Russia and China, or even seek their blessing, to introduce new sanctions. UK Foreign Minister William Hague has pledged to try to co-opt Russian and Chinese support against Iran, but Russian resolve to oppose the United States may be stronger than expected. The source for Russia's strong opposition to any sanctions may be the "imminent return of a leader with a far harsher style," said Golts, referencing Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his likely return to the presidency next year.


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