Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 181

International issues have been overshadowed during the last three weeks as the Russian governmental crisis triggered an avalanche of speculation that has swept aside two stale presidential hopefuls – First Deputy Prime Ministers Dmitry Medvedev and Sergei Ivanov – and swirled around the new prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, who tries his best not to show surprise about own rising star. Questions about the “presidential potential” of this rather uncharismatic bureaucrat are certain to find a variety of answers in the coming weeks, but it is quite unusual that the escalating diplomatic intrigue regarding Iran, in which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been a key player, has received so little attention. Sufficient coverage was given to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fiery speeches at the UN and Columbia University, but the new content of Russia’s position in the changed international settings remains obscure (Rossiiskaya gazeta, Vremya novostei, Izvestiya, September 26).

The key feature of the unfolding cycle in the long crisis is France’s unequivocal demand for much stronger pressure on Iran, aimed at eliminating the unacceptable option of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. The Kremlin duly registered French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner’s statement about the need to prepare for war, but Russia was inclined to interpret it as an unfortunate figure of speech; however, visiting Moscow two weeks ago, Kouchner showed little flexibility despite Lavrov’s efforts (Gazeta, September 17; Nezavisimaya gazeta, September 19). President Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech from the UN rostrum left little doubt about France’s new readiness to deliver what it takes to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment program. That denies Russia the habitual opportunity to play on the discrepancies between the “hawkish” U.S. stance and the more “realistic” line of the European “troika.”

There are, however, two significant alterations in Russia’s own position that provide it with some new strength. The first one is that Moscow is now able to present its “give-talks-more-time” policy as consistent with the approach adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Mohamed ElBaradei, the long-serving IAEA director general, has succeeded in convincing Tehran to cooperate in the investigation of the scope of its nuclear program and to sign a new accord (Rossiiskaya gazeta, August 29). The Iranian leadership apparently decided that admitting some past wrongdoings would be an acceptable price to pay for continuing its current project, installing new cascades of uranium-enriching centrifuges, which formally has no military dimension. ElBaradei’s diplomacy has faced much U.S. criticism, but Russia finds it to be useful and constructive.

Another alteration is the postponement in delivering fuel to the nearly completed nuclear power station in Bushehr, which was scheduled to begin in September but is now expected no sooner than mid-2008. The official reason for this delay is the irregularities in payments, but in fact Moscow has made it clear that the deliveries are conditional on full cooperation with the IAEA (, August 8; Vedomosti, August 9). Tehran might be rather irritated by this breach of contract, but Russia has escaped from the need to cross an implicit “red line” drawn by the United States and won some more time for maneuvering.

The newly forged Western unity has forced Moscow to abandon any subtlety and confront its G-8 partners head-on at the meetings in the backrooms of the UN General Assembly. Lavrov clashed with U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice but has not revealed a word from that exchange, so Russian media had to quote U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns about “very clear tactical disagreement” and underline that Kouchner laughed when answering the question about any progress in the discussions: “I wouldn’t exactly say so, no” (Kommersant, September 28). It is clear, nevertheless, that Lavrov had the last laugh, since instead of a draft UN Security Council resolution the Group of Six (United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China) adopted only a joint statement that welcomed the accord between Iran and the IAEA and demanded full cooperation and transparency from Tehran (, September 28). The EU has also backed off from the threat to impose its own sanctions on Iran in coordination with the United States, since Russia insisted that such unilateralism was counter-productive.

It is unclear what arguments, beside the pledge to veto the third UN Security Council resolution, Lavrov presented, but it is clear that Russia’s tough confrontational attitude is certain to irk not only the United States and the Europeans, but also Israel and many Arab states. Moscow would have never stuck its neck out to such a length for Ahmadinejads’s sake, and the benefits of trade with Iran are not big enough to induce such a risky behavior. The real reason behind this readiness to sabotage Western efforts may be of a hydrocarbon rather than nuclear nature. Last May, President Vladimir Putin basked in the triumph of hammering out an agreement with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on building a gas pipeline along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea (EDM, May 14). By now, however, the technicalities of that agreement have failed to materialize, and President Gurbanguly Berdimukhamedov confirmed in New York that Turkmenistan remains open to new gas deals (Kommersant, September 27). While Russia has quietly abandoned all talk about organizing a gas OPEC, it might need support from Iran in convincing the Turkmen leader, who is still quite new in a very hard job, that the best corridor for his gas goes north.

The pause in the Iranian intrigue is set to last only a few months, during which Tehran might indeed open many old files in its nuclear program for the IAEA inspectors but will not slow down the uranium enrichment activities. In the meantime, Washington might adopt a law that imposes penalties and sanctions upon states cooperating with Iran, which is certain to provoke Russia to assume a defiant stance (Rossiiskaya gazeta, September 27). Moscow has every opportunity to legitimately shelter Iran’s progress toward developing a full nuclear cycle, but it has to decide whether it is prepared to pay the full price for exploiting these opportunities.