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Russian Support for Iran Seen as Bargaining Chip

File Photo of Iranian Uranium Conversion Facility
file photo
Ties between Russia and Iran appeared to be unraveling only last year, when the two traded barbs over Russian support for UN sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.

Now Moscow appears to be squarely back on Tehran's side. On November 7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sternly condemned an Israeli statement that military action against Iran was more likely than a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. "It would be a very serious mistake fraught with unpredictable consequences," Lavrov said. "There's no military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem or any other problem in the world today."

Then on November 8, a new report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reinforced Western suspicions Tehran is secretly building a nuclear weapon by saying the Islamic republic carried out tests "relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device."

French and U.S. lawmakers responded by calling for new sanctions against Iran. But Russia sharply condemned the report, saying it was "gravely disappointed and bewildered." It said the report could be meant to sink chances for a diplomatic solution.

"We have serious doubts about the justification for steps to reveal contents of the report to a broad public, primarily because it is precisely now that certain chances for the renewal of dialogue between the 'sextet' of international mediators and Tehran have begun to appear," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Russia is one of six world powers -- including Britain, China, France, Germany, and the United States -- in stalled negotiations with Iran. Moscow is also a member of the UN Security Council, where it has veto power over any resolutions.

A Question Of Politics

Experts say the Kremlin is now seeking to use that leverage to boost its presence in the world after largely standing on the sidelines while Arab Spring revolutions toppled regimes it had supported.

Defense expert Aleksandr Golts calls Moscow's actions part of a "19th-century game of realpolitik," saying the Kremlin's real priority in its dealings with Tehran are relations with the West.

"At every moment, Russia is deciding what it wants to be," Golts says. "Either a country that cooperates with the West in pressuring Iran, or a spoiler to all Western initiatives."

Although Russia has profited from building a nuclear power reactor in Iran that recently went online, Golts says business interests aren't a main driver of Russian policy this time.

Viktor Kremenyuk of Moscow's USA and Canada Institute agrees Moscow's latest stance over Iran represents a "flexing of muscles." He says the Kremlin "is displeased with recent criticism in Washington, including [U.S.] disappointment in [President Dmitry] Medvedev and disapproval of [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's presidential candidacy. It may be the beginning of a new soft cold war."

Kremenyuk says Russia's future response to new proposals for sanctions against Iran will depend on their seriousness. "Politics is a negotiation," he says, "It will depend on what Moscow gets in return for its support."

Golts says Russia's recent statements don't signal anything new from Moscow. "Russia always opposes any military action against Middle East countries," he says. "It said the same thing about Libya."

Despite Russia's seeming rapprochement with Iran, Golts says their relations will continue to be complicated. "Even though Russia's main use for Iran is bargaining with the West," he says, "at the end of the day, it isn't interested in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons."

Article copyright (c) 2011. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036 http://www.rferl.org; article also appeared at http://www.rferl.org/content/russian_support_from_iran_seen_as_bargaining_chip/24385845.html

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