Russia’s Reverse Initiative to Solve Iran’s Nuclear Issue

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Alireza Noori
Expert on Russia and Central Asia Affairs

Russia’s new initiative which aims to revitalize negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and was discussed by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his meeting with the American counterpart, Hillary Clinton, can be considered the sole Russian initiative on this issue. Lavrov’s “step by step” plan called on Tehran to answer questions about its nuclear activities in stages starting with the easiest questions before addressing the most difficult ones. If Iran’s answers were considered “convincing” by 5+1, Iran would be awarded with specific measures like reduction or gradual abrogation of certain international sanctions.

Although Moscow should be acclaimed for the decision to get out of the passive position it took during Iran’s negotiations with 5+1 and come up with an initiative to break the deadlock, further scrutiny of the new Russian plan will reveal nothing new. It may even make future negotiations more complicated. It seems that Russian officials have not been able to achieve consensus on how to react to Iran’s nuclear activities among them. Review of Moscow’s contradictory positions on Iran’s nuclear activities will produce clear signs of a political standoff in Russia over Iran’s nuclear case. While President Medvedev alleged in June 2010 that Iran is close to building nuclear bomb, his prime minister, Putin clearly announced that no sign of diversion to military purposes has been detected in Iran’s nuclear program. Both of them have also laid strong emphasis on Moscow’s opposition to sanctions against Tehran.

Russia seems to have reached the conclusion that taking ambiguous positions on the nuclear case and following suit with the United States is the best way to protect its interests on both sides of the ongoing contention. There are questions about why the initiative has been bought up in the United States when Moscow and Washington, after a short honeymoon, have different views on the deployment of a US missile shield in Europe while Russia’s interests have been ignored in Arab world’s developments, especially in Libya and Syria. On the other hand, there are ambiguities surrounding the Russian plan which require its designers to spend more time and care for various aspects, nature and future outlooks of nuclear negotiations with Iran.

On Iran’s side, the most important problem is that the Russian initiative has totally ignored Tehran as a party to possible negotiations and has offered its proposed package only to 5+1. This is in outright conflict with the main goal of Moscow; that is, promotion of negotiation.

Russian planners should have cared for Tehran’s view, that willingness of the West to negotiate with Iran over nuclear activities in parallel to putting more pressure on Tehran and considering preconditions will have no result, but imposition of illegal demands of the West through apparently logical negotiations. In addition, Tehran has clearly announced that its inalienable “rights” including the right to peaceful use of the nuclear energy under full supervision of International Atomic Energy Agency, are not negotiable.

On the other hand, Moscow does not seem to be unable to understand why Washington is putting so much pressure on Iran. Review of past developments will show that Iran’s nuclear case is just a means for the United States to put more pressure on Iran and make it give in to Washington’s expansionist policies in the Middle East. Such pressures have been on Iran since the victory of the Islamic Revolution through various means. At present, aggrandizing the risk of Tehran’s nuclear activities under the aegis of nonproliferation and concerns of a yet unidentified “international community” only serves special interest groups in Washington.

As for Russia’s capacity to play a role in Iran’s nuclear case, it is noteworthy that although Lavrov announced in his press conference with Clinton that Moscow’s position on Iran’s nuclear case was different from Washington, he also tried through his ambiguous remarks to provide Moscow with leeway to play at both ends of the game. However, as current developments show, Russia does not have much latitude to maneuver over Iran’s nuclear case. Clinton’s emphasis on continuation of “carrot and stick” (negotiation and pressure) policy toward Iran was the first negative answer to Russia’s “step by step” initiative. President Ahmadinejad has frequently noted that such an approach defeats its own purpose and Iran is not ready to recognize it. Moscow should note that Iran considers past and ongoing sanctions illegal. Therefore, removing some sanctions as an “incentive” for Iran is nothing but to restore a “right” to Tehran which had been illegally taken away from it in the first place.

Thus, Russia’s plan which requires IAEA, as an impartial organization, to pose questions to Iran as “defendant,” which should give convincing answers to those questions and then offering incentives to Tehran after those answers are considered fair by the United States as “judge” only conforms to the framework which has been built by Washington many years ago. The main point about the framework, which is also seen in Russia’s plan, is that Iran’s nuclear case should not be solved because it would strip the United States of one of its most influential means of putting pressure on Iran. This is, by no means, desirable for the United States. The subtle point which should be realized by Moscow is emphasis on giving “convincing answers” by Iran. As current trends show that the American “judge” has already proved its incompetence to see into this case.

Finally, as negative reaction of Western countries to Medvedev’s proposals on security structure of EU and establishment of a common missile shield as well as ignoring Russia’s interests in Libya and Syria clearly show, Moscow is not “big” enough to be recognized by the West as an influential international player, including in Iran’s nuclear case. Therefore, the new tactical game may prove hazardous to Russia. If this plan is put into action, Russia will not be able to take further ambiguous positions and this will endanger its interests on one side of the case (most probably Iran). Clinton’s positive answer to Lavrov and her readiness to dispatch American experts to discuss the initiative with Moscow and her remarks that Moscow and Washington pursue the same goal, which is to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, can be just a beginning for Washington to use Russia’s initiative to the detriment of Moscow.

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