When President George W. Bush met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava, Slovakia, this past February, the first item on the White House’s laundry list of discussion points for the summit was nuclear programs, including Russian aid to Iran’s nuclear-power effort.  After the meeting, Putin told reporters that the issue of nuclear proliferation was a key topic for discussion and stated that Russia understood American concerns: “We share a common opinion in this regard and a common approach,” Putin said.  President Bush seemed outwardly satisfied with Putin’s assurances, saying that “We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon.  I appreciate Vladimir’s understanding on that.”

At issue was Moscow’s fulfillment of a contract with Tehran to develop the Bushehr nuclear-power station, which Washington and Tel Aviv have contended is part of a civilian nuclear energy cover for developing nuclear weapons—something that both the United States and Israel see as unacceptable, to the extent that they have dropped hints about a military strike to prevent Tehran’s acquisition of an “Islamic bomb.”  Putin’s assurances, however, were meant to set the stage for a further agreement between Russia and Iran on nuclear cooperation, something intended to forestall an American-Israeli attack on Iran.  Indeed, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Ivanov subsequently said that “Russia will do everything possible to prevent events in Iran from following the Iraqi scenario.”

The agreement signed by Russia and Iran on February 27 was designed to assure the Europeans and Americans that Moscow was not acting irresponsibly—further underpinning Moscow’s arguments that a “military option” for dealing with the Iranian nuclear question should not be on anyone’s table.  The agreement, as described by Jamestown Foundation analyst Pavel K. Baev, is, indeed, “airtight” by international standards: In early 2006, Russia will deliver 100 tons of enriched uranium to the Bushehr power station, which is nearly completed.  The reactor is scheduled to begin operating late next year.  Iran, according to the terms of the Russo-Iranian agreement, will return the used fuel to Russia in about a decade.  Moscow reportedly resisted Iranian efforts to speed up delivery of the enriched uranium and to relax its terms concerning the used fuel’s return to Russia.

So why were the Americans and Europeans (particularly Great Britain, Germany, and France) uneasy about the agreement?  First, outside observers have noted that, even if the Bushehr power station is operated transparently, it will provide Iran with a considerable amount of nuclear expertise.  Second, the Europeans have been pushing a package of incentives, both economic and political (including dangling the prospect of entry into the World Trade Organization before the Iranians), to persuade Tehran not to pursue a uranium-enrichment program.  Moscow’s plan to go ahead with a separate deal appeared to undercut those efforts.  Finally, Bushehr is not the only facility the Iranians have.  Viktor Minz, a former Russian Foreign Ministry advisor, voiced the unspoken concerns of many of the Westerners: “Any system of checks and controls can only work if the country that signs up to it is ready to observe it.  There is an entire network of nuclear facilities in Iran, many of them underground.”  Russia’s nonproliferation programs apply only to the Bushehr facility.

Moscow is heavily involved in the Iranian nuclear effort.  More than 2,000 Russian citizens reportedly work at the Bushehr station, and the number may increase to as many as 3,000.  Aleksandr Rumyantsev, head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Minatom), has commented on the prospects for Russian scientists and technicians working on other plants that Iran may have in mind.  Meanwhile, amid the flurry of hints about American and Israeli military action, the Bushehr station, with Russian help, appears to be digging in: According to a Russian engineer working at Bushehr, Russian workers have dug 1,000 kilometers of tunnels there.  Moscow is determined that the Bushehr project go forward: Russia has been hinting that she would veto any U.N. efforts to impose sanctions on Iran to prevent the further development of an Iranian nuclear capability.

At the same time, the Europeans do not appear to see a nuclear Iran as an immediate threat.  Though the chief European powers—France, Germany, and Great Britain—would like to see nonproliferation work as a policy, their efforts, like Russia’s, may be aimed as much at preventing a U.S./Israeli military strike on Iran and avoiding further destabilization of the Middle East as at preventing the Iranians’ acquisition of nuclear weapons.  Why the United States should be behaving aggressively just now is not apparent: U.S. estimates have the Iranians “going nuclear” no sooner than the next decade.  Apart from that, nuclear deterrence worked effectively during the Cold War and could work again in the case of Iran, which, in any case, does not appear to be developing a nuclear program with the aim of launching a suicidal attack on the United States or turning over nuclear material to terrorists to do the job for them.

Israel does, of course, see a nuclear Iran as an immediate threat.  Again, it seems unlikely that Tehran would launch a nuclear first strike on Tel Aviv, since the Israelis have a considerable nuclear stockpile and would likely retaliate.  (Some reports have Israel’s nuclear arsenal as the fifth or sixth largest in the world.)  Iran does, however, support terrorist groups that target Israel, and an Iranian bomb could restrict Tel Aviv’s options in dealing with Tehran on that score.  More importantly, perhaps, the Sharon government’s ability to act as it pleases could be constrained.  Ray McGovern, a respected former CIA intelligence analyst who heads Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, put it this way: Israel is determined “to prevent its neighbors from acquiring the kind of capability that could infringe on the freedom it now enjoys to carry out military and other actions” in the Middle East.

If the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons were not enough to alarm Sharon and the present Israeli administration, columnist Roger Howard points out that, while

Iran’s bid to develop nuclear arms could perhaps herald a military confrontation with the United States, their acquisition would be much more likely to lead to a new diplomatic rapprochement . . . that would tempt Washington to focus on Iran’s nuclear challenge at the expense of Israel’s perceived interests.

The Iranians can see, for example, how the United States treats North Korea more carefully now that the communist regime has announced it has nuclear weapons.  In this case, the Bush administration’s insistence on helping the Sharon government in its plans to remake the Middle East have only spurred on Iranian efforts to expand their nuclear program.  Small wonder, then, that official Israeli views on an Iranian bomb have been more alarmist than those of U.S. intelligence.  Ray McGovern continues: “One reason the Israelis are pressing hard for early action may simply be out of a desire to ensure that George W. Bush will have a few more years as president after an attack on Iran, so that they will have him to stand with Israel when bedlam breaks out in the Middle East.”

Iran’s position is as easy to understand as that of Israel.  Tehran wants nuclear weapons to deter the United States and the Israelis.  As related by Mr. McGovern, Sen. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, inadvertently let the cat out the bag on a recent Sunday talk show.  Senator Lugar was attempting to answer a simple question: Why does Iran want nuclear weapons?  Lugar began to state candidly “Well, you know, Israel has . . . ”; then he caught himself, saying that Israel “allegedly” has nuclear weapons.  Plainly stated, Iran wants nuclear weapons because Israel has them—and Senator Lugar knows full well that she does.  So why does that represent a clear and present danger to the United States?

Moscow is in a much more vulnerable geographic position than the United States regarding an “Islamic bomb.”  Indeed, with Pakistan going nuclear in the 1990’s and Tehran desiring to do so, some Russian observers fear what Russian nonproliferation expert Vladimir Sotnikov called an “Islamic Nuclear Belt” on Russia’s southern flank.  Sotnikov’s comments should focus our attention on that southern flank—and what may be a partial explanation for Russia’s apparent lack of alarm at Iran’s attempts to develop her nuclear sector.

Russia has continued to develop strategic ties to both India and China in areas such as arms sales, security, and energy.  India and China are moving forward with ambitious economic development plans, both of which require fuel and energy: oil, natural gas, and electricity generated by Russian power stations.  In view of the U.S. incursion into the Middle East (and, on India’s part, the U.S. relationship with her enemy Pakistan), all three have a desire to balance the U.S.-dominated “unipolar” world by developing alternative centers of military and economic power (a “multipolar” world).  With a nuclear Iran, the multipolar scenario becomes more plausible: As noted above, a nuclear Iran could temper U.S. plans for further unilateral military actions in the Middle East, reining in what many (not only in Russia, India, and China) consider a “hyperpower” on a rampage—a rampage that has included expansion into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, to say nothing of the U.S. role in the recent Ukrainian presidential elections or of NATO’s eastward expansion.  Once more, the term encirclement is being heard in Russia: Moscow clearly fears being cut off and isolated by the U.S. hyperpower.  A nuclear Iran friendly to Russia could break the blockade on the southwestern Russian flank.  Putin’s recent announcement that he will visit Tehran in April (I write in March) seems to indicate that Moscow is at least partly thinking in such geostrategic terms.  As far as the “War on Terror,” Moscow has not seen Tehran as the source of support for the Chechen insurgents: The Muslims who have provided money, supplies, and men for the Chechens are Arabs, not Iranians.

That said, one should never discount the Russian internal political situation or economic motives in such calculations.  Geopolitics only partly explain the Iranian-Russian relationship.  The Russian nuclear-energy sector is one of many currently up for grabs in the battle of the Kremlin political/economic “clans” for the choicest morsels of the country’s economic pie.  Yulia Latynina, one of Russia’s most perceptive and well-informed journalists, advises us to follow the money—and the money from the current Russia-Iran nuclear deal is now flowing in the direction of Gazprom, the Russian gas monopoly controlled by Putin’s “St. Petersburger” cronies.  Until October 2004, the company that had contracted to build the Bushehr power station, Atomstroiexport, was majority owned by a private shareholder.  Then, state auditors discovered certain tax violations.  Subsequently, the controlling stake in the company was sold to Gazprombank for a song: $25 million for a company that could receive up to $20 billion in contracts in the next few years.

The private shareholder who owned the controlling stake in Atomstroiexport likely had a choice: Either sell for a pittance or have the state attack his company, the way it did Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Yukos, and see it seized outright.  Once the property was in the right hands, any obstacles to forging ahead with the Iranian nuclear deal went away.  The nuclear deal was signed, according to Latynina, for “purely commercial reasons,” which seems entirely plausible given the avaricious nature of the Russian elite.  Experts who were stumped by the deal were “asking the wrong questions.”  They were trying to explain the nuclear deal with Iran only in geopolitical terms, but “you should ask instead who is making money off Bushehr.”

If Washington has any hopes of reaching accord with Russia or, indeed, any of the states mentioned in this article, it must lose its aversion to area expertise and try to find out what the interests (both economic and strategic) of the various players are in a situation.  As it is, policymakers often ignore the advice and insights of those who actually know something about the various “dark corners” (in President Bush’s terminology) of the world they seek to remake.  They may find that the actions of the Russians, Iranians, Chinese, Indians, and Europeans are not as inexplicable as they may appear to their untrained eyes and narrow minds.