Putin in Iran
Oct 16th 2007 | NEW YORK
Russia's president pays a visit
WHAT did Iran’s leaders see when they looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes? Apparently somebody to do business with. As outsiders watched carefully for signs of Russia’s intentions regarding Iran’s nuclear programme, Mr Putin arrived in Tehran, Iran’s capital, and appeared to show support for the country’s nuclear efforts. “The Iranians are co-operating with Russian nuclear agencies and the main objectives are peaceful objectives”, he said.
Russia has long been criticised for assisting in Iran’s nuclear activities, which Iran insists is for energy production but which governments in America and Europe strongly suspect is meant to build weapons. Russia, and usually China, has a history of weakening sanctions on Iran in the United Nations’ Security Council. Two UN resolutions on Iran have been passed, but they have instituted only mild sanctions which have been met with scoffs from Tehran.
Mr Putin at least wanted to appear tough on this trip. There was the matter of an alleged assassination plot within Iran, for example. The plot, if there was one, was revealed by Russian security services to Russian journalists just before Mr Putin’s trip, but little detail was made public. Some are sceptical. Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russia-watcher at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC, suggests that the secret services “organise a so-called assassination attempt two to three times a year”. Mr Putin may believe that by going to Iran in the face of a putative threat he looks strong.
But Mr Putin is less tough in dealing with Iran. Russia wants to reassert its great-power independence and Iran is doubly helpful: its nuclear dealings with Iran are profitable, and Iran conveniently preoccupies America. Mr Putin is expected to seek to put pressure on Iran to pay its debts for a civilian nuclear reactor at Bushehr that Russia is helping to build. Iran is in arrears, so Russia has slowed construction. If the debts are settled, however, work may resume.
On the other hand, Russia is not keen to see Iran, a near neighbour, develop a nuclear weapon. If Iran succeeds others in the region would be encouraged to seek their own. Russia, with its own war in a Muslim province, Chechnya, that has become something of an Islamist cause célèbre, would not relish the idea of Muslim neighbours to the south brandishing nuclear weapons.
Western countries could increase the pressure on Russia by making sure to stand together. A united front of the European Union’s 27 countries and America might eventually nudge Russia into getting a little tougher on Iran, which might pull China along as well. Before Mr Putin’s trip to Iran he met Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, to talk about Iran among other issues. Ms Merkel said in a newspaper interview that “we cannot close our eyes to the dangers” of a nuclear Iran, although she suggested that matters should be resolved through diplomacy. France’s foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, says it has been many years since the world has confronted a problem as dangerous as Iran’s nuclear programme.
Yet Europe is divided over what should be done. Europe’s foreign ministers met this week in an effort to devise a common approach to Iran. A camp led by the French wants new, vigorous European sanctions soon. But Germany, Italy, Spain and Austria have argued that no new European sanctions should come without steps at the UN. But this would run up against Putin and Russia’s veto.
America is trying to strengthen its own sanctions with various state and federal bills to limit funds from flowing to European companies doing business in Iran. But given America’s existing sanctions, which have been in place for some time, even the economic superpower has little extra leverage. If Russia chose to exert more power it might have some influence in Iran. But, for now, Mr Putin seems barely interested in doing so.