The big bear's Bushehr bargaining

By Cyrus G. Robati

(June 12, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) Much to Tehran's annoyance, Moscow has come up with yet another excuse to delay the completion of Bushehr - the city on the country's southwestern coast -- Iran's first nuclear plant. Dan Belenky, the head of Atomstroiexport -- the state-run company building Bushehr for the Iranians -- announced on June 10 in a RIA Novosti article that Russian banks are refusing to work with the Iranians and that the company is trying to figure out another way to finance the project. Mr Belenky barely bothered going into details on which banks are allegedly refusing cooperation, nor does he specify a new timeline for when the plant could be completed.

Back in late February, the Russians got Iranians' hopes up when the Kremlin sent Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Moscow's state nuclear corporation RosAtom, to Tehran to attend a “pre-commissioning” ceremony for Bushehr. Mr 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.

“If there are no unforeseen events ... then the launch will go according to the timetable,” Mr Kiriyenko says. “The launch is scheduled for this year.” This would not the first time that the completion of the plant has been delayed because of funding issues. As far back as June 2007, Russian nuclear energy officials hosted an Iranian delegation for talks regarding delays in Tehran's payments. In September 2006, the chief of Iran's Atomic Organisation predicted that the plant would be completed in six months.

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 Moscow, Bushehr is a political tool to be used in dealing with Washington. 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 compiling a book of excuses to explain each delay to the Iranians. With the global cash 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 American President Barack Obama's visit to Moscow in July, where the 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. Washington 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), Moscow is reminding its Central Asian subordinates of the consequences of dealing with Washington.

Meddling in Central Asia and the Caucasus is pretty typical for both sides, but the most important American-Russian tussle taking place right now is in Central Europe. Russia has already been busy exploiting growing strains between Germany and America 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 Americans from strengthening their foothold in Poland by deploying ballistic missile defence 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-finalised ballistic missile defence deal. Washington has to tread carefully in dealing with Warsaw, especially when Moscow holds powerful levers -- such as potential weapons transfers -- in places like Iran and Afghanistan to scuttle American policy. When Mr Obama comes to Moscow, his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, will reiterate to the president that the ballistic missile defence deployment to Warsaw 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 Washington's concessions in Central Europe with Moscow 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.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

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Unknown said…
Well, the author is right after all ... Russians are often two faced, anyway. On the whole, Mr Robati's column is neat. tracy Indiana (usa)