Much to Iran's annoyance, Russia has come up with yet another excuse to delay the completion of Bushehr, Iran's first nuclear plant. Dan Belenky, the head of Atomstroiexport (the state-run company building Bushehr for the Iranians) announced June 10 in a RIA Novosti article that Russian banks are refusing to work with the Iranians and that the company was trying to figure out another way to finance the project. Belenky didn't bother going into details on which banks were allegedly refusing cooperation, nor did he specify a new timeline for when the plant could be completed. Back in late February, the Russians got Iran's hopes up when the Kremlin sent Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's state nuclear corporation RosAtom, to Tehran to attend a "pre-commissioning" ceremony for Bushehr
. Kiriyenko carefully said at the time that Moscow would finally bring the plant online before the end of 2009 "if there are no unforeseen events." Unsurprisingly, that schedule has again been derailed. For Iran, the Bushehr plant, which (once completed) could hypothetically produce enough plutonium for a nuclear device, forms an integral part of the country's nuclear agenda. But for Russia, Bushehr is a political tool
to be used in dealing with the United States. This tool is only valuable if it can be used against the Americans as a threat. If the Russians provided the nuclear fuel and wrapped up the remaining technical requirements to switch the plant on, Russia's leverage in the Iranian nuclear arena would dissipate. The Russians have been jerking Iran around on Bushehr since 1995 and by now have compiled a book of excuses to explain each delay to the Iranians
. With the global financial crisis taking a toll on Russia's banking sector, blaming the banks for not wanting to finance the project makes a decent alibi. But the Russians are not about to worry much about Iran's concerns over Russian foot-dragging. This announcement was carefully timed in the lead-up to U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow in July, where the U.S. president will come face-to-face with a Russian power circle determined to lock down Russian influence in the former Soviet periphery. Just this past week, both sides have been posturing heavily and showing where each side can meddle in each others' spheres of influence
. The United States is trying to hijack negotiations in the Caucasus between Armenia and Azerbaijan that have thus far been run by Moscow while at the same time announcing fresh aid packages for states in Russian-dominated Central Asia. Though Washington has been careful to specify that it is only offering aid, and not talking about military bases (at least for now), the Russians are reminding their Central Asian subordinates of the consequences of dealing with the United States. Meddling in Central Asia and the Caucasus is pretty typical for both sides, but the most important U.S.-Russian tussle taking place right now is in Central Europe. Russia has already been busy exploiting growing strains between Germany and the United States so that it can cozy up to Berlin and attempt to widen the trans-Atlantic divide. But the biggest priority for the Russians right now is to prevent the United States from strengthening its foothold in Poland by deploying ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations on the former Soviet border. So far, the Obama administration has been reluctant to push Moscow too hard and has thus kept Warsaw hanging on the yet-to-be-finalized BMD deal. The United States has to tread carefully in dealing with Poland, especially when the Russians hold powerful levers — such as potential weapons transfers
— in places like Iran and Afghanistan to scuttle U.S. policy. When Obama comes to Moscow, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev will reiterate to the U.S. president that the BMD deployment to Poland is a red line for Moscow. And by taking a step back from Bushehr again, Moscow is pledging, at least rhetorically, that it will reciprocate U.S. concessions in Central Europe with Russian concessions in the Middle East. Both sides will continue to feel each other out with such symbolic gestures, while those stuck in the middle, like Iran and Poland, will be left fretting over the possibility of being abandoned by their powerful backers.