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Washington Cannot Stop Russian Nuclear Deals With Tehran

By Brenda Shaffer
International Herald Tribune
December 28, 2000

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts Throughout the past decade, Russian-Iranian cooperation in the nuclear sphere has puzzled Washington.

Moscow is constantly discovering Iranian attempts to illicitly attain technology related to weapons of mass destruction, yet does little to stop these efforts, and officially cooperates with Iran on civil nuclear projects, which provide Iran with knowledge to advance its military programs.

But Russia and Iran are neighboring states, so wouldn't Moscow be one of the first at risk if Iran acquired nuclear weapons? And, isn't the government in Iran called the Islamic Republic?

Moscow is oppressing Muslims in Chechnya and both Russia and Iran want influence among the Muslim peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Wouldn't these factors put them on a collision course and bring Moscow to the idea that Iran's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction hurts its own security?

In fact, Russia needs Iran and Iran needs Russia - a fact that has eluded the United States.

Washington assumes that Russia fears Iran and its ability to stir up trouble for Moscow in the Caucasus and Central Asia and thus will actively cooperate with the U.S. to combat the advance of Iranian weapons programs. What Washington fails to understand in this line of thinking are a few facts.

First, Iran is an extremely pragmatic state. When its state geopolitical interests collide with its Islamic agenda, the state interests almost always take precedence. As far is Tehran is concerned, so what if Moscow is slaughtering Muslims in Chechnya? Russia has resources and technology that Iran wants.

Also, cooperation with Russia could help offset U.S. hegemony in the international arena, and together Iran and Russia could better prevent expansion of U.S. influence.

Moscow's vulnerability in Chechnya is pivotal to understanding its commitment to cooperation with Tehran. Iran's pragmatic perception of the importance of cooperation with Russia is crucial as well.

Overall, official Iranian statements have been mild in their criticism of Russia in the Chechen wars, considering the Muslim background of the Chechen rebels. Tehran, which now chairs the Islamic Conference Organization, has ensured that Chechnya stays off the agenda of many Islamic forums.

In fact, Russian pledges to cooperate with Iran in the nuclear and security fields have surged during Russia's heightened military engagements in Chechnya. Iran's prevention of a Muslim backlash against Russia over the Chechen issue was often rewarded by Moscow with public reaffirmations of its commitment to supply Tehran with the civil nuclear reactors Iran had long sought.

Moscow views Tehran's cooperation in containing Muslim backlash as essential to its internal security and for maintaining good relations and trade with many Muslim states. As a cornerstone of its current security conception, Russia is reluctant to take steps that could jeopardize this cooperation. As long as Russia is involved in a conflict with Chechnya, it will do little that could upset its relations with Tehran.

Thus it is futile for the United States to build its nonproliferation hopes for Iran on Russia's cooperation.

Washington may be able to convince Russia to refrain from providing certain technologies most directly applicable to nuclear weapons, but it is it is naive to suppose that Russia will cut off its broader military and nuclear cooperation with Iran in response to U.S. pressure.

The recent announcement by Igor Ivanov, Russia's foreign minister, that Moscow's previous commitments to the United States to refrain from concluding new arms deals with Iran were now null and void, was a clear sign Moscow is no longer interested in serving as a sub contractor for U.S interests. The Bush administration will have to think of something new, and, hopefully, improved.

The writer, research director at the Caspian Studies Program at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.


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