[home][about][contact] [getting involved] [Educational][Academic] [Media Watch][Views]
Lavrov's Crucial Iran Visit
In a sign of Moscow's determination to play a proactive role in regional diplomacy, Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov is in Tehran on Wednesday, June 13th, to discuss a range of issues with Iran's top officials, including the upcoming nuclear talk in Moscow on June 18th as well as a proposed Russian conference on the crisis in Syria.
Geostrategically speaking, for Russia both Iran and Syria represent reliable allies in the Middle East presently aimed for regime change by the West, which will gain clear advantages over Russia if its scripts vis-a-vis Iran and Syria succeed somehow. It is therefore unsurprising that at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Russia's president Vladimir Putin drew a red line on wars in either country, bound to constrain Washington's and NATO's hands in the region.
In a clear affront to France's new government, which explicitly rejected the idea of Iran's inclusion in a France-sponsored international meeting on Syria and which has rushed to embrace the dangerous notion of a NATO intervention in Syria, Moscow is now working on a parallel conference that includes Iran and Turkey as well as UN Security Council's permanent members, geared to salvage Kofi Annan's peace plan. This shows bold new initiative by Putin's government, which finds itself at odds with the US and NATO over a range of political and geostrategic issues. The question then, in today's context of US-Russia rivalries, is whether or not there is sufficient common cause between Washington and Moscow for the former to nod to a breakthrough role to the latter with respect to both crises?
On the issue of Iran nuclear talks, at the SCO summit, Putin had a constructive meeting with Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and in no unmistakable language defended Iran's right to a peaceful nuclear technology. This has been widely interpreted as Russia's consent to Iran's possession of a full nuclear fuel cycle under strict international supervisions, in sharp contrast to the US's official position that insists on halting all uranium enrichment activities, albeit within the nuanced approach of prioritizing the suspension of 20 percent enrichment as an immediate "first step" priority.
"Traditionally, Russia does not like to host an international conference and see it failed, that is why Mr. Lavrov will be in Tehran tomorrow to hammer out the differences between the two sides," says a Tehran University political science professor who spoke with the author on the condition of anonymity. True, but by the same token, is Washington, which feels that it is in the driver's seat over Iran's nuclear file, willing to take a back seat to Moscow and allow Mr. Putin to take credit for achieving a breakthrough in the Iran nuclear standoff, which will surely enhance Russia's regional and international profile? Of course, US-Russia relations is highly complicated and shows areas of incremental cooperation, such as Russia's role in facilitating the supply route for NATO in Afghanistan, not to mention Russia's backing of several UN Security Council resolutions on Iran. Chances are that President Barack Obama's advisors are pondering the pros and cons of some hard bargaining with Putin over both issues, yet unlike the past when Russia could leverage its postponement of opening the Bushehr power plant in Iran (for more than a decade), it no longer has such crucial leverages to offer in the hope of a quid pro quo from Washington.
According to the Tehran professor mentioned above, the Moscow meeting between Iran and the "5 +1" nations (i.e., UN Security Council's Permanent Five plus Germany) "provides Moscow with a unique opportunity to showcase its diplomatic skills that if played right can even dazzle the international community, but that depends partly on US and European Union to consent to this."
A complicating factor is the interconnections between the Syrian crisis and the Iran nuclear crisis, which one has the highest priority and for whom? Of course, in light of a new widely-circulated letter in Washington by the pro-Israel group known as AIPAC, which calls on the Obama administration not to make any compromises with Iran and to adopt a hard line in Moscow, Israel and its friends want to put the "Iran threat" above all else and, yet, the Syrian crisis and the potential role that Iran, as one of Damascus's main backers, can play serve to de-emphasize the centrality of the Iran nuclear crisis. On the other hand, the mere prospect of a future western intervention in Syria fuels the hard-line politics in Iran that is adamantly opposed to making any serious compromises on Iran's nuclear rights, which give Iran a de facto nuclear weapons potential capability, simply because many in Iran and the region consider a western intervention in Syria as a prelude for a future invasion of Iran. In other words, the short-term benefits to Iran resulting from the crisis in Syria should not be ignored, even though this may turn purely negatively in the long-run in case that crisis degenerates further into a full-scale civil war and culminates in the forced removal of Iran's Arab ally in Damascus, Bashir al-Assad. Many analysts in Tehran are concerned that Iran may get a bad wrap in the region as a "counterrevolutionary" source backing an authoritarian Syrian regime defied by its own people, this when historically the Islamic Republic has prided itself as a power standing with the people in the region.
"If Mr. Lavrov plays his cards right, we could see a more successful summit on Iran in Moscow than was the case in either Baghdad or before that in Istanbul earlier this year," predicts the Tehran professor. As a result, Tehran, after a couple of weeks of shadow boxing with the EU's High Representative Catherine Ashton, is suddenly more optimistic about the prospects of the coming Moscow meeting than it was a precious few days ago.
A notable reason behind such optimism is that the Moscow meeting is bound to renew interest in the Russian "step-by-step" proposal that was unveiled by Mr. Lavrov sometime ago. This proposal calls for a tit-for-tat removal of Iran sanctions in exchange for Iran's gradual compliance with the outside demands regarding its nuclear program, which include enhanced transparency through greater Iranian cooperation with the IAEA. Concerning the latter, Iran and IAEA are yet to reach a final agreement on a modality for new cooperation, partly because Tehran is concerned that in so doing prior to Moscow it will deprive itself of a precious bargaining chip. Another concern by Tehran, reflected in the recent interview of Iran's ambassador to the IAEA with this author ("Iran prepares for Moscow": ) is that the western nations are using the IAEA as a tool of political influence and even espionage.
Keen on preventing the implementation of European oil sanctions that are due to go into effect on July 1, Tehran is hoping that both Russia and China will back their proposal, offered at the recent Baghdad meeting, that for the first time puts the issue of 20 percent enrichment on the table. According to some Tehran foreign policy analysts, Iran's flexibility in Baghdad was unmatched by any sign of western flexibility and, henceforth, if the US and its allies persist on their unrealistic red lines and so forth, Moscow is bound to be a net failure. Clearly, the ball is in west's court and the big question is how will they play it in Moscow next week?
Kaveh L. Afrasiabi is a former political science professor at Tehran University, author of several books on Iran's foreign and nuclear policies, former advisor to Iran's nuclear negotiation team (2004-2006)