- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Russia signaled Monday that its willingness to provide help for U.S.-led efforts stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons is limited indeed. The United States, with support from Britain and France, tried to get support from Moscow for a U.N. Security Council statement calling on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment efforts. But after two days of negotiations, Russia (and China as well) still refused to agree on language criticizing Iran.

Britain and France want a council statement that urges Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency — with or without Russian support. The goal is to pressure Moscow into leaning on Tehran.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has pursued a circuitous approach aimed at strengthening military and economic relations with the Islamist regime in Tehran while making public statements urging it to restrain itself and negotiate restraints on its nuclear program. This allows Moscow to pursue lucrative economic and military projects with Iran, while declaring its determination to persuade Iran to change its behavior — even if nothing is ever accomplished toward that end.

Russia is the lead supplier for Iranian civilian nuclear efforts, having sold Tehran a $1.2 billion nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which is scheduled to be completed this year. Also, Moscow plans to supply Iran with up to five more reactors at a cost of up to $10 billion, which can be used to produce fissile material. In December, Russia announced its intention to sell Iran $700 million worth of short-range surface-to-air missiles, and is reportedly negotiating a sale of long-range SA-10 anti-aircraft missiles. These weapons could be deployed in an air-defense system that could make it extremely difficult for the United States or any other foe of the Iranian regime to launch disarming air strikes.

Even though Mr. Putin’s government has helped make Iran a more menacing, dangerous regime, Moscow contends that it is helping to stabilize the situation by driving home to Tehran the message that it needs to behave more moderately. So, on Monday — the very day that Russia was rejecting efforts by the Western democracies to censure Iran — Moscow was accusing Tehran “of thwarting diplomatic efforts to dispel Western fears about the Islamic republic’s nuclear program,” according to an acount in the Moscow News.

Until now, Russian diplomats have been successful in talking tough in order to mollify the West, while continuing business as usual with Iran. But as the United States and the Europeans intensify the pressure for diplomatic action against Iran, it will become increasingly difficult for Moscow to continue playing both sides of the fence. Unless the West blinks, Mr. Putin will soon be faced with some painful choices about his relationship with Iran.

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