Tuesday, October 24, 2006

As China pressures N. Korea, will Putin face down Iran?

USA Today
October 23, 2006

It took the explosion of a nuclear bomb by North Korea - fortunately just a test - for China to start enforcing sanctions and applying pressure in a way that suggests it finally grasps the proliferation dangers, to itself, the region and the world, that its erratic neighbor represents.

It might take a nuclear bomb in Iran to wake Russia up in the same way - and then it could be too late.

Moscow is to Iran what Beijing is to North Korea: a great power neighbor with so much economic and political influence that it could, almost single-handedly, close the rogue regime's nuclear weapons program.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Moscow hoping to turn the "momentum" of sanctions against North Korea into similar action against Iran. Russia was having none of it. "We won't be able to support and will oppose any attempts to use the Security Council to punish Iran" to promote regime change, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

What's happening is that Russian President Vladimir Putin's agenda is driven by a single obsession: to regain as much of the former Soviet Union's superpower status (and territory) as possible. Iran holds a key to restoring Russia's once-considerable influence in the Middle East. The two have strong trade ties, and Moscow is helping Iran build a nuclear power plant. So other priorities have shrunk to invisibility, including Russia's once-intense interest in deterring the spread of nuclear weapons.

Even at the peak of the Cold War, Moscow aggressively policed the international treaties and measures on nuclear non-proliferation, kept its allies in check, and tightly controlled its own nuclear inventory. Putin does little of that today.

His actions with regard to Iran are particularly unconscionable because Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons could easily set off a regional arms race that would threaten everyone.

Israel, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad routinely threatens with annihilation, already has a nuclear stockpile. Other nations in the region, most of them Sunni Arab states distrustful of Iran's Shia version of Islam, would feel the pressure to build their own weapons in what is already the most unstable region on earth. The potential for terrorists to get nukes would rise dramatically.

Yet Russia seems to play down the threat. On Friday, Ahmadinejad again predicted Israel would be wiped from the map. Two days earlier, Putin had assured Israel that he understood Israel's concerns.

Perhaps Putin wants to force concessions in exchange for cooperation. That, too, is an old Soviet habit, and Putin wants less foreign pressure as he rolls back democracy and tries to reclaim power over neighboring states. Or perhaps he just sees value in the trouble Iran causes the West.

Either way, the world is likely to get a lot more dangerous unless Putin can be persuaded to act in the way that the leader of a responsible world power should.