The virtually simultaneous revelation of U.S. contingency — and even operational — planning for Iran by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker magazine and of Iran’s capacity for enhancing uranium may not have generated a massive outpouring of overtly emotional replies in Russia. Indeed, Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s Atomic Energy Agency, said that enrichment does not arouse concern in Russia and was not unexpected.
Nevertheless these events have galvanized Russia’s diplomatic and military establishments into action. Officials are increasingly being forced to walk a very narrow line along a precipice bounded by Washington and Tehran, while analysts are in open disagreement about what to make of these announcements. Interestingly, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, rather than the armed forces or President Vladimir Putin, has taken the public lead.
Lavrov’s line, shown in many statements, reveals an increasing unhappiness with Iran for refusing to accept the UN Security Council’s resolution and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provisos. Meanwhile lower-ranking spokesmen and public figures have been dropping hints about possible support for sanctions. They also revealed that Moscow is stalling on delivering the Tor anti-aircraft missiles that Iran bought in December 2005, which would greatly enhance its capability against American or Israeli strikes.
At the same time, Lavrov insists that diplomacy alone can solve this issue — the use of force would only aggravate existing tensions in the Middle East. He also has warned Washington against adding extraneous demands about democratization to the nuclear issue. Instead he reiterated that Russia’s earlier offer of a joint project to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, with Russia doing the work and Iran getting the uranium that could not then be used for weapons remains on the table. Second, while admonishing Washington not to resort to violence, he insisted that nobody could exclude Russia from the resolution of this issue and warned against both sanctions and “jumping to hasty conclusions” as to what Iran is up to. He simultaneously warned Iran that enrichment was a wrong step, and that it should stop enrichment and return to the supervision of the IAEA.
Obviously Lavrov is trying to balance Russia’s need for a friendly anti-American Iran with pressure from Washington and Moscow’s own opposition to Iran’s nuclearization. On a broader level he and Putin are aiming to reassert Russia as an independent actor and counterweight to the United States in the Middle East so that Moscow cannot be excluded from the regional security agenda. This broader stance is evident in two moves announced over the weekend of April 14-16. One is that Russia will subsidize Hamas in the Palestine Authority, even though Washington and the EU have stopped doing so, and second the Kremlin has invited the United States, EU, and members of the UN Security Council to hold a meeting of deputy foreign ministers in Moscow on April 18.
Although commentary from the Russian Ministry of Defense remains calm, the specter of an American attack on Iran, especially the possibility of using tactical nuclear weapons raised by Hersh, must be unnerving. Thus Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has stated that Iran has no ICBMs and Chief of Staff Colonel-General Yuri Baluyevsky added that Iran does not even have the capacity to build nuclear weapons and could not threaten Russia with its missiles. Moreover they and their supporters soothingly say that, in any case, Iran has not enriched enough uranium to make a weapon and that it would need to get the uranium from Russia. Since the Ministry and Ivanov’s predecessors often said the same thing about North Korea and few believe that the DPRK does not now have at least a handful of nuclear weapons, this appears to be an attempt to defy Washington and say that this is a crisis created by Washington to advance unilateral regime change in Iran, a line reflected in Krasnaya zvezda, the Ministry’s newspaper, and by several pundits like Sergei Markov. Indeed President Putin’s representative for terrorism, Anatoly Safonov dismissed statements that Iran is behind international terrorism as having no basis in fact.
Several pundits clearly dispute this and call Iran’s missiles a threat to Russia as well. It is now becoming very clear that Moscow’s room for maneuver on the Iran issue is narrowing and that its efforts to play an independent anti-U.S. role in the Middle East by supplying Iran with technology, know-how, reactors, and conventional weapons are generating a situation that puts its interests at considerable risk. Indeed, Russia’s past policies may have now rebounded, as many analysts at home and abroad have warned would happen. Veteran analysts like George Mirsky have cited the fact that Russian foreign policy is made not at the Ministry but in the Presidential chancellery and made by people who wish to recreate an imperial Russian superpower against the United States. And this is a major cause of Russia’s present discomfiture.
At the same time there is no sign of the Iranian government’s willingness to back down and make compromises, because it clearly believes that Russia and China will back it up against Washington, a decaying power tied down in Iraq. While Lavrov and other officials are clearly right in arguing that further aggravation of tensions in the Middle East could be extremely dangerous for all concerned and the international community as a whole, it also is clear that Moscow, as it finds itself increasingly confined to the diplomatic precipice where it now stands, in large measure has only itself to thank for this predicament.
(RIA-Novosti April 7, 12; Interfax, 1, 2, 11, 13; Ekho Moskvy Radio, April 12, 13; Tass, April 7, 11, 12; International Herald Tribune, April 7; Nezavisimaya gazeta, April 10, 13; Interfax-AVN (Agentstvo Voyennykh Novostei), April 13; Radio Mayak, April 12; China Daily, April 15; Krasnaya zvezda, April 14)