Page 1 of 2 Russia's grand bargain over Iran
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
In the United States there is growing talk of a "grand bargain" with Iran, but
it appears that the US has struck one already with Russian President Vladimir
Putin. All is well when former Cold War enemies unite against the clear and
present danger of proliferation by a "rogue state" and do so through the lofty
channels of the United Nations. This they did by invoking Chapter 7, which, in
effect, means that the Security Council recognizes Iran's nuclear program as a
menace to world peace and stability.
"President Putin is satisfied," the Russian news agency informs us, and,
indeed, why shouldn't he be? Per various Russian official
and unofficial sources, Putin considers UN Resolution 1737, which imposes
targeted sanctions on Iran and gives Tehran some 60 days to comply with its
nuclear demands or face tougher measures down the road, a "diplomatic victory"
This is how Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov explained it: Russia achieved a
triple objective through the Security Council resolution, ie, took a step on
behalf of the "non-proliferation" cause; prompted the recalcitrant Iranians to
"continue negotiations"; and safeguarded its interests with Iran, above all,
with respect to the Bushehr power plant it is building in Iran. The resolution
exempts the plant and permits Russia-Iran cooperation to proceed with finishing
it, so goes Kremlin's argument.
What is more, given Iran's defiance, Putin and his circle of policy advisers
have made it crystal-clear that Russia will remain on board for follow-up
punitive measures two months from now, which is probably what Putin conveyed to
US President George W Bush when he placed a call to the White House right after
the resolution's passage and expressed his felt need to maintain a united front
on the matter. This leaves no doubt whatsoever where Moscow stands on this
thorny subject that dragged on for much of 2006.
The new year therefore promises to be a better one for troubled US-Russia
relations, seeing how a mere two weeks ago Putin was vilified as a Cold Warrior
murdering his opponents seeking sanctuary abroad, that is, a "toxic Putin", as
a right-wing media pundit put it.
Nor should we forget the deprecating image of Putin, clad Mafia-style and with
a gas nozzle looking like a machine-gun in his hand, on the cover of The
Economist. How quickly things change and, overnight, Putin the "rogue" spy
relic is now hailed as a stable, stabilizing and trustworthy partner in the
unholy battle against "mad mullahs" thirsting for a bomb to "annihilate
Israel", to paraphrase a recent editorial of the pro-Israel Washington Times.
But really, what caused the sudden turnaround on Putin's part? Was it primarily
Russia's fear of Iran's clandestine military program, as alleged by Washington,
London and Paris? Was it Putin's unhappiness with the firebrand President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad? Or was it a quiet quid pro quo with Bush, whereby
Putin was let off the hook over the spy murder mystery involving a Russian
dissident? Or did he receive certain open and some not so open rewards, such as
Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, and, perhaps, a US pledge
not to make too much fuss about Russia's less than desirable record on
democracy and human rights, in exchange for backing Bush and British Prime
Minister Tony Blair versus Iran?
One thing is for sure: we may never know the full answer any time soon and can
only extrapolate from the trickle of incoming information the distinct
possibility of a Bush-Putin grand bargain, whose genesis may be traced back to
the Group of Eight summit in St Petersburg last summer. This, we may recall,
coincided with the storms over Lebanon in that botched Israeli attempt to
"decapitate Hezbollah", to paraphrase Israel's elder statesman and vice
premier, Shimon Peres.
Not were only Peres' and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's prayers not answered, and
not only was Israel dealt a severe blow to its military prestige after 34 days
of relentless decimation of Lebanon's economic infrastructure, that brief
though costly episode also coincided with the growing Iraqi quagmire. This was
partly blamed on Iran and Syria, who could now boast of a "double victory"
imperiling the post-Cold War status quo.
Between the two, Iran was billed as the "biggest winner" and this, in turn,
meant that the "500-pound gorilla" of Iran, to quote former US senator Bob
Dole, was exceeding the limits of power allotted to it by big powers. Russia,
after all, has a large Muslim population that is somewhat restless and a
candidate for fundamentalist indoctrination, and more so if seduced by an
Iranian "regional superpower", per the words of a Russian commentator. The
solution, then, according to a veteran analyst in Washington, was "to clip the
mullahs' wings, and do so before they soar to the nuclear heights".
Farewell multipolarism, hello again US unilateralism thinly cloaked in the new
garb of multilateralism toward Iran, as if there is an iota of heterogenity
left breathing in the skin of French or German diplomacy on Iran's nukes. This
is, put simply, not 2003 recycled, when European heroics against the invasion
of Iraq flashed triumphantly, albeit passingly, on the horizon; rather, it is
more akin to 1990-91, when the US managed its last grand global alliance
against Saddam Hussein's conquest of one of Iraq's former provinces dished out
by the European post-colonialists as independent Kuwait.
No wonder US State Department and White House spokespeople are now beaming
bright lights on "the will of the international community" - irrespective of
the fact that while all 15 Security Council members voted in favor of the Iran
resolution, in effect it was the will of the Permanent Five, all
nuclear-weapons states, that coalesced together against the Iranian
The privileged five include China, which was immediately warned by the US
ambassador to Beijing not to proceed with a mega-energy deal with Tehran, a
timely warning so far heeded by China's cautious rulers in spite of their
unquenching thirst to lock in the deal.
With its US$10 billion annual exports to Iran and tens of billions already
committed in Iran's oilfields, China's vested interests rank higher than the
other veto powers in the Security Council, and we shall see if the US will
attempt a similar grand bargain with China