Sunday, March 25, 2007

One of the few positive developments regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons programs is Russia’s refusal to supply uranium for Iran’s nuclear power station at Bushehr. The decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin (which has been officially attributed to Tehran’s failure to pay its bills on time) deserves praise. But unfortunately, Bushehr is only part of the picture. Russia remains the largest arms supplier to Iran. And U.S. analysts frequently overlook some of Moscow’s other harmful actions in the region, which include destabilizing arms sales to Syria. Moscow’s peculiar flirtation with the terrorist group Hamas is yet another area in which the Putin government is undermining U.S. interests in the region and working at cross-purposes with its own efforts to improve relations with Israel.

As the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, Russia cut off arms sales to Syria, which had accumulated billions in unpaid debt for Cold War-era arms purchases from Moscow. Russia resumed arms sales to Syria during the late 1990s, but the arms supply relationship between the two countries remained limited until January 2005, when President Bashar Assad visited Moscow and Russia agreed to write off nearly three-quarters of Syrian debt. Russia’s decision reportedly followed an intense lobbying campaign by Tehran on Mr. Assad’s behalf. In exchange, notes Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen, Tehran is believed to have promised to reward Moscow with new weapons purchases and other contracts.

Russia’s sales of Strelets air-defense missile systems to Syria in 2005 serve to illustrate how complicated these maneuverings can get. The Putin government agreed to the deal to sell the vehicle-mounted Strelets to Syria over protests from Washington and Jerusalem. But at the same time, Moscow managed to deflect some of the criticism from Washington with a concession: denying the Syrian strongman’s request for superior air-defense systems such as the S-300. One factor entering into Russia’s decision not to sell the S-300 was probably its thriving economic relationship with Israel, home to more than 1 million citizens of the former Soviet Union — many of whom have a deep attachment with family members and friends living in post-communist Russia.

But even as Moscow refrained from going ahead with the S-300 sale, it has continued to engage in other activities that undercut American foreign policy interests and endanger Israel as well. Last summer, Israeli forces in Lebanon found evidence that Russian-made Kornet-E and Metis-M anti-tank systems had been provided to Hezbollah. In the final hours of the war last August, at least 24 Israeli soldiers died in a fierce battle to capture the Lebanese town of Ghandouriyeh. After the Israel Defense Forces captured the village, they found Syrian-supplied hardware near a Hezbollah outpost: eight Kornet anti-tank rockets. Written beneath a contract number on each casing, the London Telegraph reported, were the words: “Customer: Ministry of Defence of Syria. Supplier: KBP, Tula, Russia.” Yet Russian officials dismiss such evidence as anti-Moscow propaganda.

Lately, attention has been focused on the death of Ivan Safronov, military correspondent of Russia’s Kommersant Daily, who “committed suicide” March 2 under suspicious circumstances. Mr. Safronov claimed to have indisputable evidence that Russia intended to sell modern Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft systems, Inskander surface-to-air missiles and MiG-29 fighter-jets to Syria through Belarus.

Then there are Moscow’s efforts to court Hamas. Recently Russia hosted Hamas leader Khaled Meshal in Moscow for the second time within a year — even though Hamas expresses solidarity with Chechen Islamists, including suicide bombers, who are at war with Russia. Mr. Putin has said that Russia does not view Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations — a viewpoint that conflicts with the positions of the United States and the European Union. In addition, Moscow is using its economic might in ways that could undercut U.S. interests. For example, Mr. Putin has publicly left the door open for a proposal by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to create an OPEC-style cartel for natural gas. While this is taking place, Russia has also become a center for loud, anti-Western propaganda that is increasingly popular in the Moslem world — with Mr. Putin’s searing attack on the United States at a recent security forum in Munich a prominent example.

In this context, what are we to make of Russia’s current discord with Tehran, where Moscow is pressing the Islamic Republic to resolve its dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency and stop enriching uranium? It may well be that Mr. Putin has concluded that Tehran has escalated the conflict with Washington too far and needs to be put in its place. He may also be responding to concerns from the Saudis and others about the dangers of a wider regional war resulting from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s thuggish behavior. If Mr. Putin is prepared to lean on Iran and force it away from the nuclear precipice, it would be foolhardy not to try to engage the Russian leader. But we should do so mindful of the fact that he is likely to remain a formidable adversary on many other issues.

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