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Russian Bridge to Iran Has Twists

May 04, 2006|Alissa J. Rubin and Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writers

VIENNA — As the U.N. Security Council meets this week to discuss how best to stop Iran's march toward nuclear weapons capability, Russia has the potential to serve as a bridge between the West and the Islamic Republic. But Moscow's complex motives may make it a difficult partner.

Russia, a permanent member of the council and one that has had close ties to Middle Eastern countries since the Soviet era, now views the volatile, oil-rich region as the key to regaining its position as a world leader, diplomats and analysts say. Moscow also has strong economic ties to Tehran: Two-way trade topped $2 billion in 2004, and Iranian officials predicted recently that it would double in coming years.

This is "a moment of truth for Russia," when the nation will choose whether to throw its lot with the West or keep the U.S. and its allies at arm's length, said Radzhab Safarov, director of the Iranian Studies Center in Moscow.

The two Western European permanent members of the council, Britain and France, share the United States' goal of persuading Iran to halt uranium enrichment, and they are willing to back sanctions, and perhaps ultimately military action, to obtain that goal. On Wednesday, the United States, Britain and France introduced a draft Security Council resolution ordering Iran to halt its nuclear enrichment activities.

Although Moscow shares the West's desire to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state, it has other interests as well, chief among them enhancing its own status as an alternative power to the United States, diplomats and experts say.

"Russia has a bunch of motives.... Coming back as one of the world's superpowers is definitely one -- counterbalancing the U.S., but also counterbalancing China and India," said a senior European diplomat with experience in the former Soviet Union who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the Iran debate.

"Even with 25 nuclear warheads, Iran would never be a threat to Russia, which could readily retaliate. So accepting that Iran might have a small nuclear capability and combining that with potential Russian economic successes in Iran and the Russian capability to influence or even to lead Iran -- that is really something" for Moscow, the diplomat said.

Russia is particularly worried that the U.S. experience in Iraq will be repeated -- a concern shared by much of the world.

"Of course the Russians don't want the Iranians to develop nukes, but they are much more concerned about confrontation leading to sanctions and war, and that's much more of a threat to their interests," said Gary Samore, a nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration who now serves as head of global security for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He recently visited Moscow to discuss diplomacy on nuclear issues.

Sanctions could limit Russian exports to Iran and war would almost certainly destabilize the region, disrupting Russian business not only with Iran but also throughout the Middle East.

Safarov, the Russia analyst, said that beyond economic concerns, regaining ascendancy on the world stage was paramount for Russia. If Moscow can define itself as the world's broker on Iran, he said, it will be the "go to" country for the West in dealing with the Islamic Republic.

"Russia has a unique and historic chance to return to the world arena once again as a key player and as a reborn superpower," Safarov said. "If Russia firmly stands by Iran's interests in this conflict

"Of course, that will result in a serious cooling of relations between Russia and the United States. But Russia and the United States are destined to be competitors," he said, "and no lucrative proposals from the United States can change this situation strategically."

On Wednesday, the Security Council began to discuss a legally binding resolution to require Iran to stop its enrichment activities. But the resolution will avoid any mention of sanctions, which Russia and another permanent member, China, oppose. U.S. and European officials expect Russia to sign on to it after some bluster -- or at least abstain and allow it to pass because it merely formalizes a previous council statement, backed by Russia, which demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activities. All five permanent members of the United Nations council have veto power.

"I'm sure we can find the right language that will assure everyone that this resolution is not about sanctions," U.S. Ambassador John R. Bolton said.

Even as Russian officials repeat Iran's mantra that it has a right to peaceful nuclear power, Moscow is adamant that Iran should not produce a bomb or, as Russian diplomats frequently put it, "violate the nonproliferation regime."

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