Thursday, November 29, 2007

The devious Bear: Russia's influence on Annapolis, Iraq, and Iran 

Remember, there are two paths to an Iranian bomb -- the intensive enrichment of U-235 via centrifuge cascades, and the transformation of much less enriched uranium into plutonium via a heavy water reactor. Iran is pursuing both strategies, the second with the apparent help of Russia. We use the word "apparent" advisedly, because it is not entirely clear whether Russia is helping with all the energy and effectiveness it could muster if it actually wanted Iran to produce its own plutonium. Stratfor's email of last night describes the willingness of the Russians to cooperate with the Iranians in the most cynical terms (cynicism being something of a Stratfor specialty). I have rendered into bold certain statements that might be particularly interesting or controversial to our regular readers.

The regional power whose geopolitical options would be most truncated by a nuclear-armed Iran is not the United States, but Russia. The two repeatedly have clashed in the past, and the Soviet Union occupied much of Persia in the last century. The only reason Moscow and Tehran have not recently been at each others' throats is that they have the buffer of the independent Caucasian and Central Asian states between them; at present, they can afford to be allies.

Therefore, Russia finds the idea of an Iranian nuclear program terrifying, but in keeping with a time-honored Russian tradition, Moscow is willing to flirt with helping the Iranians in order to gain leverage on related issues. Specifically, Russian assistance gives Moscow a hand in Iranian affairs, U.S. negotiations with the Iranians over the future of Iraq, and European economic relations with Iran. But should Bushehr become active, that leverage will vanish. Put another way, Russia has a vested interest in assisting Iran's program, but not in actually helping Iran finish it.

As we noted in one of our Geopolitical Diaries about a year ago, the only remaining question is: How long can Russia milk this?

The answer is: longer than one might think. The original deal to build Bushehr dates back to 1995. The project was scheduled to be completed in 1999, and even the Russians have quietly admitted that the reactor core has been ready since late 2004. But because Russia has always based its decisions on politics rather than on reality, the reactor's unveiling might still be a long time coming.

What would be required on the part of the Russians to change this strategy would be the belief that the whole system -- from their point of view -- is falling apart. And that is precisely what seems to be happening.

In the past week, two key pro-Iranian figures in Iraq -- Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki and Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite faction, the Iraqi Islamic Supreme Council -- both more or less signed off on a long-term U.S. presence in Iraq. Al-Hakim even met one-on-one with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on Nov. 27. The Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., on the future of the Palestinian territories saw nearly all of the region's power brokers -- including the Syrians -- come together to agree on a roadmap that will create a Palestinian state.

Normally, Tehran would interpret such developments as a surge of U.S. power that requires a surge of its own in response. In the past, this has meant using its connections to Shiite militias to set Iraq on fire. Yet, so far, Tehran has not so much as raised an eyebrow, and Iraq is calm -- well, as calm as it ever gets (read: attacks are still dropping) -- suggesting that the United States and the Iranians may finally be reaching some sort of deal on the future of Iraq.

Russia used every diplomatic tool in its power to derail Annapolis, including deploying former Prime Minister and Soviet foreign policy maverick Yevgeny Primakov in an effort to make the talks all about the Golan Heights -- an issue so thorny that makes the Israeli-Palestinian dispute look like a stuffed animal in comparison. Yet, peace deals and geopolitical alignments appear to be breaking out across the Middle East with breathtaking speed. And while the dominant view -- particularly in Washington, Tehran, Damascus, Riyadh and Baghdad -- is nervous optimism, the emotion percolating in Moscow is terror. A Middle East that is not on fire is a Middle East that does not consume Washington's attention. And a Washington, and even an Iran, that has free time is one that starts poking into the Russian near abroad.

In fact, the picture is worse than it appears at first glance. The Europeans have pretty much given up on economic contact with Iran; Europe is crafting a common energy policy to reduce their reliance on Russian petroleum; and Chinese economic growth continues to outshine anything the Russians can generate. High energy prices may have granted Russia more options at home, but the challenges on the Russian periphery have only gotten bigger recently.

Russia now needs to use every tool at its disposal in an attempt to upend the progress that the Americans and the Middle Eastern powers have made in order to distract the world from Moscow. One tactic will be to hold its own counter-conference on the Palestinian issue in an effort to derail the progress at Annapolis. Another will be to ship nuclear fuel to Bushehr and switch the reactor on in the hopes that this sufficiently emboldens Iran enough for it to scrap the most recent round of talks with the United States and demand more.

I'll leave it to you to discuss whether Russia is in fact playing such a deep game, and whether Stratfor describes its interests accurately. Stratfor's observation about the level of violence in Iraq is very interesting, however, and invites an obvious question. Yes, the news of a permanent base deal with Iraq is certainly a defeat for Iran. Is Iran's failure to escalate the product of some quid pro quo in the ongoing sub rosa negotiations with the United States (as Stratfor suggests), or is it a reflection of Iran's geopolitical defeat in the battle for Iraq?


By Blogger Georg Felis, at Thu Nov 29, 03:06:00 PM:

There is a third path for Iran to get “the bomb” that we do not like to think about. If it becomes in Russia’s interest to stir up trouble in the Mideast, and they have a total loss of morals, they can sell Iran the Pu “Pits” that make up the core of a functional bomb by pulling a couple out of their old obsolete bombs.

I hope that Putin has a tiny bit of morality left. As well as sense.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Nov 29, 03:29:00 PM:

Fourth path - Pakistan; raw material or 'finished product', take your pick.

Fifth path - North Korea, raw material (?)

And both of these have benefited from Chinese assistance.

And Oceania and Eurasia have always been at war.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Nov 29, 03:50:00 PM:

Interesting to consider the possibility that our presence in Iraq actually provides regional strategic advantage. Who'd a thunk it?

TH, I'm intrigued by your rather casual mention of "a permanent base deal with Iraq" and would appreciate more info. I've heard mention of such a development but have seen nothing of substance to this point. Thanks.  

By Blogger Purple Avenger, at Thu Nov 29, 05:36:00 PM:

A Middle East that is not on fire is a Middle East that does not consume Washington's attention.

Or place massive new orders for Russian military hardware...  

By Blogger cjm, at Fri Nov 30, 09:42:00 AM:

russia is clearly in terminal decline and thrashing about hysterically. as a country and as a people they are still mired in their past history, and haven't accepted that authoritarian systems of governance are uncompetetive.

all this energy they spend on mischief" would be better spent on repairing the damage done by 70 years of communist mis-rule. i personally don't think they are playing a "deep" game, i think they are a bunch of paranoiac incompetents trying whatever hair brained scheme comes to hand.

once a replacement technology displaces oil as a major energy source, they are done for. as it is, no one trusts them and no one likes them. my advice to any russian parents: have your kids learn mandarin, so at least they can work as a janitor (when the dragon swallows the bear)  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Nov 30, 03:27:00 PM:

Russia is playing all sorts of political games in Middle East , Eastern Europe, Far East and so on, no question about it. Russians play these games to the best of their abilities, which are often limited (to say the least). The important point is, they MUST play. Americans are privileged by geography and simply can't begin to understand the dynamics of survival on big landmass divided into dozens of countries, big and small. All Americans know is Canada to the north and Mexico to the south. When Americans get involved in difficult conflict overseas, the simple solution to withdraw beyond the sea always presents itself. Russia or Iran don't have that luxury.

There is absolutely no need to consider Russia when trying to understand the dynamics of Iranian meddling in Iraq affairs. The simple causation is out in the open and requires elaborate mental gymnastics in order 'not to be seen'.

Iranian involvement in Iraq affairs depends mostly on the US resolve, pure and simple. Initially, Iranians didn't interfere with US military action in Iraq and even cooperated with US military in western Afghanistan, when public support for the military action was at its peak in the US. As public support in the US dropped and talk about withdrawal intensified, Iranian interference in Iraq increased. Now that the US is showing a little more determination to stay in Iraq, Iranian interference reduces. As simple as that.

Iranians can live with the US providing stability in Afghanistan and Iraq. They are not stupid and they know very well that if the US is truly determined to do something, the best thing is to get out of the way. They are flexible and can find another way to exploit the situation. The problem arises when the US falters and looses determination. Because US can wash its hands and withdraw to the other hemisphere but Iranians don't have that luxury. If US is out of Iraq, something else is going to be in, and Iranians sure want to do as much as they can to influence that future, because it concerns them very closely. So they start interfering and trying to acquire all the influence they can get, simply because they MUST. They don't have a choice.

So increased stability in Iraq, guaranteed by US military, doesn't mean Iranian defeat. To the contrary, it might be one of those rare 'win-win' situations for Iran and the US.  

By Blogger cjm, at Fri Nov 30, 03:50:00 PM:

i would strongly advise any country looking to russia for help, to study the effect of such aid on previous russian client states. they are all hollowed out failed states whose peoples live in abject misery.

i agree that the environment (or local context) that russia has to deal with is more complex than ours (in the u.s.) but i also believe that the russians have *always* chosen the evil "way". they could have allied with western europe and the u.s. in WWII but chose to go the other way.

they are a doomed peolpe who have never done one decent thing, and the sooner they are gone the better for everyone else.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Nov 30, 08:02:00 PM:

Don't underestimate the effect of Iran's semi-crazed President, Candide. He's much more, shall we say fatalistic, in his beliefs and approach toward politics than his predecessor. (whom, despite having the label 'moderate' lavished upon him by the MSM, is not a nice man) Many of the Iranian plots, bombs, and bullets in Iraq and Afghanistan have Ahmadinijad's signature on them.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Dec 01, 01:41:00 AM:


Don't you know that USSR was an ally of the US in WWII?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Dec 01, 01:55:00 AM:


I agree the safest way is to assume that there are some exteremists group in Iran, including those contemplating some sort of nuclear 9-11.

It is entirely possible that Ahmadinejad was very happy to authorize anti-US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there seems to be a pattern to how much Ahmadinejad is allowed to do and that pattern may depend in large part on the US course of action in the Middle East. To wit, when the US acts decisively Iranians bide their time but when the US dithers Iranians start interfering.  

By Blogger jj mollo, at Sat Dec 01, 05:26:00 PM:

Chris was right about the USSR. They were Nazi allies first and only sided with the West once the Nazis revealed themselves as being absolutely untrustworthy when they blitzed, unabated, to Moscow.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sat Dec 01, 08:43:00 PM:

jj mollo,

I still don't know what 'chris' meant but since you undertook to answer for him, I'll address you both.

Since you found necessary to go all the way to the beginning of WWII to prove that "the russians have *always* chosen the evil "way"", why don't we check what the US was doing at the same time?

Historical records show that the US didn't enter the WWII when it started on 9-01-1939 and the US didn't join the Allies at that time and long afterwards. In fact, the US maintained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany until 12-08-1941. For comparison, the USSR joined the Allies on 6-22-1941 (or 6 months before the US).

The reason USSR joined the Allies was that it was attacked by Nazi Germany. The reason the US joined the Allies was that it was attacked by Japan and Nazi Germany declared war against the US.

So there are many unpleasant similarities. Does it mean America is 'evil' as well? I don't think so. I don't think that episode proves America is 'evil'. Why do you think that episode proves Russia is 'evil'?  

By Blogger jj mollo, at Sat Dec 01, 11:11:00 PM:

I did not necessarily mean to agree with Chris that Russia is intrinsically evil, but was merely defending his example that Russia sided with the Nazis until it had no choice. When France and Britain were at their weakest point, the Soviets signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler. It included a plan to divide up Poland.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Dec 02, 03:37:00 AM:

jj mollo,

You are absolutely right about Nazi-Soviet pact. While on the surface it was simply a non-agression pact, there was also a 'secret protocol' on division of Poland and Baltic region between Germany and USSR. I can only point out that Russia paid very heavy price for that folly and later played an important part in the Nazi Germany defeat.  

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