Russia’s Opposition to Iran Sanctions Strengthened by Georgia Rift

A231312317.jpgTEHRAN (FNA)- Fierce American criticism of Russia’s military action in Georgia and Washington’s support for Tbilisi is almost certain to jeopardize a very different US strategic objective: stepping up pressure on Iran with another layer of United Nations sanctions.

As builders of Iran’s $800 million nuclear power reactor, Russia has long resisted imposing sanctions to halt Iran’s program, which the US says is a cover to make an atomic bomb, but has not corroborative evidence to substantiate it. Washington has convinced Moscow to support three previous sets of Security Council sanctions, although Russia showed much reluctance in following suit.

But US efforts to launch a fourth set of sanctions – begun last week, as Iran all but ignored a US-European deadline on a nuclear deal – may get lost in the shrill US-Russian tussle in the Caucasus.

“This will make any hope of cooperative effort on Iran much more difficult,” says Michael McFaul, a Russia and Iran expert at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Support on Iran, he says, is “without question” the biggest strategic casualty of the renewed US-Russia tension.

Iran is “the last serious issue where the Bush administration has decisions to make in terms of changing policy,” says Mr. McFaul. It is also “the one place … of high national security interest to the United States where Russia plays a direct role in what we are trying to do. In that sense, it towers over all these other things.”

US and European officials are scrambling for ways to punish Russia for moving armed forces into separatist, pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in pro-West Georgia, and then into Georgia itself, to counter a Georgian military invasion late last week.

After five days of fighting that routed Georgia’s small, US-advised forces, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said the “aggressors” had been “punished” and ordered an end to operations. Russia lambasted Georgia’s US-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili as a “terrorist” and “lunatic” who should be tried for “genocide.”

But the rhetoric has also been unusually blunt between the US and Russia. President Bush this week demanded Russia end a “dramatic and brutal escalation of violence.”

US warplanes carried 2,000 Georgian troops out of Iraq Sunday, until then the third-largest coalition member.

Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin mocked the US effort. “I’m amazed by their skills at seeing black as white, of portraying aggressors as victims,” Mr. Putin said.

“Some of our partners, far from assisting us, are attempting to impede us (by transferring Georgian troops) on board US aircraft directly to the conflict zone.”

Former Soviet leader and Nobel laureate Mikhail Gorbachev also blamed the US and the West more generally for military training and political support that “emboldened Georgian leaders.”

“By declaring the Caucasus, a region that is thousands of miles from the American continent, a sphere of its ‘national interest,’ the United States made a serious blunder,” Mr. Gorbachev wrote in The Washington Post and Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Moscow.

The effect will be felt beyond the Caucasus. Noting that the US wants Russia to support sanctions against Iran and to not sell weapons, an analysis from Stratfor, an intelligence analysis firm, said Wednesday that the Russians “have backed the Americans into a corner.”

“Georgia is a marginal issue to the United States; Iran is a central issue,” notes Stratfor. The US must either “reorient” away from the Mideast to the Caucasus, or “seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran.”

“This has come at a very opportune time for Iran,” says a Tehran-based political analyst who asked not to be named. “Any new rift between the US and Russians would be welcome by Iran … anything that gives Iran more time and a little more headache for the US.”

Georgia is not far from Iran’s borders, and “the conflict can escalate to something that would cause more instability and suffering,” says the analyst, which Iran does not want.

The US has canceled a joint NATO naval exercise with Russia due to begin this week, and the US and Europeans are debating further steps, which include kicking Russia out of a series of regional groupings including the G-8 industrialized nations, returning it to the original G-7.

The harsh rhetoric comes on top of a host of issues that have rankled the once-close post-Soviet US relationship with Russia. They include expansion of the NATO alliance to Russia’s western borders, US insistence on placing missile-defense units in eastern Europe, and strong support for a string of revolutions in nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” was the first, in 2003.

“I think (Russia has) been playing us when it comes to sanctions and stringing it out for years and years,” says a US diplomat who follows Iranian issues. “They’ve never wanted sanctions, and our position has moved to theirs, not vice versa. If you go back 12 years ago, we were debating whether there should be a Bushehr (nuclear reactor). Now we are well beyond that today,” McFaul says.

But while the sanctions are affecting commercial ties, Iranian leaders insist the modest layers of UN, US, and EU sanctions in place could not harm Iran’s economy very deeply. Experts point out that the high price of oil is a salve.

Washington and its Western allies accuse Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program, while they have never presented any corroborative document to substantiate their allegations. Iran denies the charges and insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.

Tehran stresses that the country has always pursued a civilian path to provide power to the growing number of Iranian population, whose fossil fuel would eventually run dry.

Despite the rules enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) entitling every member state, including Iran, to the right of uranium enrichment, Tehran is now under three rounds of UN Security Council sanctions for turning down West’s illegitimate calls to give up its right of uranium enrichment.

Tehran has dismisses West’s demands as politically tainted and illogical, stressing that sanctions and pressures merely consolidate Iranians’ national resolve to continue the path.

Iran has also insisted that it would continue enriching uranium because it needs to provide fuel to a 300-megawatt light-water reactor it is building in the southwestern town of Darkhoveyn as well as its first nuclear power plant in the southern port city of Bushehr.

The Islamic Republic says that it considers its nuclear case closed as it has come clean of IAEA’s questions and suspicions about its past nuclear activities.

Yet, the United States has remained at loggerheads with Iran over the independent and home-grown nature of Tehran’s nuclear technology, which gives the Islamic Republic the potential to turn into a world power and a role model for other third-world countries. Washington has laid much pressure on Iran to make it give up the most sensitive and advanced part of the technology, which is uranium enrichment, a process used for producing nuclear fuel for power plants.

Washington’s push for additional UN penalties contradicts the report by 16 US intelligence bodies that endorsed the civilian nature of Iran’s programs. Following the US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and similar reports by the IAEA head – one in November and the other one in February – which praised Iran’s truthfulness about key aspects of its past nuclear activities and announced settlement of outstanding issues with Tehran, any effort to impose further sanctions on Iran seems to be completely irrational.

The February report by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, praised Iran’s cooperation in clearing up all of the past questions over its nuclear program, vindicating Iran’s nuclear program and leaving no justification for any new UN sanctions.

The UN nuclear watchdog has so far carried out at least 14 surprise inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites, but found nothing to support West’s allegations.

Observers believe that the shift of policy by the White House to send William Burns – the third highest-ranking diplomat in the US – to the talks with Iran happened after Bush’s attempt to rally international pressure against Iran lost steam due to the growing international vigilance.

US President George W. Bush finished a tour of the Middle East in winter to gain the consensus of his Arab allies to unite against Iran.

But hosting officials of the regional nations dismissed Bush’s allegations, describing Tehran as a good friend of their countries.

Many world nations have called the UN Security Council pressure against Iran unjustified, especially in the wake of recent IAEA reports, stressing that Tehran’s case should be normalized and returned to the UN nuclear watchdog due to the Islamic Republic’s increased cooperation with the agency.

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