Feb 23, 2009 | 02:55 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Russia's Continuing Cooperation with Iran

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Iran announced on Sunday that it plans to "pre-commission" its nuclear power plant at Bushehr this week. The ceremony is to be attended by Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia's state nuclear company. This announcement came two days after Iranian Defense Minister Brig. Gen. Mostafa Mohammad Najjar completed a five-day trip to Russia. The Iranians were not clear on what a "pre-commissioning" is, but they did say it would lead to launching the reactor (though no timetable for the launch was given). The pre-commissioning process appears to be some sort of operational simulation. That is less important than the politics of the matter. During the Munich security meetings, the question of the U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) system in Poland and the Czech Republic came up, with the United States indicating that the deployment was going to proceed, pending discussions with the Russians. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then floated the idea that if the Russians were to help rein in Iran's nuclear program, the need for the deployment would be eliminated. The Russians' decision to send Kiriyenko to the pre-commissioning signals that the proposal did not immediately excite the Russians and that they are going forward with at least the civilian side of Iranian nuclear power development. There is a distinction between the civilian and military side, but coming on the heels of a German delegation's visit to Iran to discuss the program — and to float the idea of the internationalization of Iran's nuclear development — Kiriyenko's plan to attend the ceremony clearly indicates that the Russians are not ready to cooperate. The reasons for that are fairly simple. For the United States, Iran's nuclear program represents a major challenge and a priority issue. For the Russians, the BMD system in Poland is an irritant, but it is not by itself a fundamental national security issue. The United States was asking the Russians to help solve a major problem in return for Washington getting rid of a minor problem for Russia. Not surprisingly, the Russians signaled this weekend that this proposal, as it stands, is not enough to stop them from cooperating with Iran. Iran is a significant lever for the Russians in managing their relations with the Americans. It is the one sure way to get Washington's attention and some flexibility in other areas. The Russians are not eager to lose that lever — and if they do give it up, it will have to be for substantially more than BMD in Poland. For the Russians, BMD is not a threat. They are fully aware that they can overwhelm it with a tiny fraction of their systems. What is a threat is the idea of the United States arming Poland and moving U.S. forces into Poland. The Russians want a buffer in Poland. If they accept BMD there, they know that in due course, they will see a highly militarized Poland. Thus, the Russians don't simply want BMD gone from Poland; they want much firmer guarantees about the future of that country. The Russians want the Americans to abandon NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union. Indeed, they want the Americans to work in the former Soviet Union through Moscow, rather than through bilateral relations with individual countries — a point that was just demonstrated in Kyrgyzstan in the context of the Manas air base, which the Americans were told to leave. The Russians are not going to help shut down the Iranian nuclear program simply for a concession on BMD. They will want a lot more for it. That is why they agreed to attend a pre-commissioning at Bushehr. Indeed, that is why a pre-commissioning is taking it place. It allows a Russian government official to attend the ceremony, thereby signaling to the Obama administration that Clinton’s offer did not even come close to the Russian price. And Iran was likely quite happy to arrange a pre-commissioning in order to send this message, given its own interests in negotiating with the United States.

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