Russia Has Strong Trade Relations with Iran But Hints at U-Turn Over Iran Sanctions
September 16, 2009
President Medvedev gave the first hint yesterday that Russia was prepared to perform a significant policy U-turn and support US moves for sanctions against Iran.
Speaking in Moscow, the Russian leader went out of his way to be more conciliatory with the West before his visit this month to the US where he will attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York and the G20 summit of economic powers in Pittsburgh. A key issue on the agenda will be efforts by America, Britain and France to impose economic sanctions against Tehran if the regime does not agree to curb its nuclear programme.
It is widely expected that President Ahmadinejad of Iran, who will also be in New York, will reject any pressure from the international community. Russia has previously refused to support the imposition of sanctions on Iran, not least because it enjoys strong trade relations with the country.
But yesterday Mr Medvedev said:
“Sanctions are not very effective on the whole, but sometimes you have to embark on sanctions and they can be right.”His remarks contradicted his Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, who last week ruled out sanctions. The possibility of a U-turn will come as a huge relief to Western diplomats who had largely given up on Russia supporting them. Trade sanctions against Iran would need the support of all five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, Britain, China, France and Russia. If Russia joined the Western nations, Beijing would be expected to drop its objections.
Reaching an international consensus on Iran is seen by many as the only way to force the regime into serious negotiations and avoid the threat of a unilateral military strike by Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities before the country can build its first atomic bomb.
Mr Medvedev appeared relaxed and more confident about his leadership when he met journalists and academics of the Valdai Discussion Club at the GUM department store in Moscow next to the Kremlin. At the same meeting last year, in the aftermath of Russia’s war with Georgia, he seemed far more edgy, particularly when asked who was really running Russia, him or Vladimir Putin, the Prime Minister.
Last week Mr Medvedev set out an ambitious programme of reforms through which he hopes to stamp out corruption, break Russia’s dependency on energy exports, and modernise a country still overshadowed by the legacy of Soviet rule.
The Russian leader said that other reformers before him had tried and failed but that he was confident that the country was ready to be dragged into the 21st century. He said:
“I don’t think we can achieve tangible results in one or two years. We could get results in 15 years.”He went on to liken the campaign to the eradication of illiteracy in Russia, one of the great achievements of Communist rule. The reference to such a long project suggested strongly that Mr Medvedev would like to stay on as president for another term when his mandate expires in 2012. However that could bring him into direct conflict with Mr Putin who hinted only last week that he would like to return to the Kremlin as president possibly for two terms of six years until 2024.
The relationship between the two leaders is a constant source of debate for modern Kremlinologists. It is widely accepted that Mr Putin remains in charge of the day-to-day running of Russia even though he holds the number two job.
Yesterday Mr Medvedev tried to play down talk of differences in the partnership.
“We are a good team. We speak the same language. That is what matters. We have our differences but that is normal,” he said.
September 16, 2009
If his spokesman Dmitry Peskov is to be believed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in his Valdai club discussions with foreign experts came out against both military action and against imposing further sanctions on Iran.
The paradox here is that it was the Kremlin's decision not to support the UN Security Council proposal to impose new sanctions that pushed Washington, Israel, the Persian Gulf, and Europe closer to consensus on a military solution to Iran's nuclear crisis. By blocking sanctions, Moscow is trying to deprive the international community of any leverage against Tehran.
In the short term, Moscow's approach is anything but absurd. Sanctions would inevitably precipitate a catastrophe in the form of serious economic problems within Iran and Russia losing its influence in Europe, the Caucasus, and most Persian Gulf Arab states.
Moscow could even find itself in a situation where its already limited options for asserting its importance would be reduced to following Nikita Khrushchev's lamentable example in banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations.
There has been quite enough discussion of how Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have shown the West through their position on Iran that it is up to anyone else you care to name to press the ill-fated "reset" button, but not them.
End To Speculation
There is no point in wasting time on analyzing the two top leaders' appeal to the nation that the Russian president came out with a few days ago, especially the part dealing with foreign policy and Russia's place in the world. That role under the flourishing tandem is perfectly clear, and it has nothing to do with the good of the country.
Nor is it worth paying any attention to Medvedev's "serious" question to Putin about who will be elected Russian president in 2012, given that nothing will change, whoever is elected.
It is also time to stop speculating about what Washington offered Moscow in return for its consent or silence during the UN Security Council vote on sanctions against Tehran.
Finally, it's time to lay to rest talk of how the Kremlin's approach to Iran is the litmus test of its entire foreign policy, an argument favored in particular by those experts and politicians who tend to attribute Moscow's decisions to its perception of having been humiliated by the West.
All of this is pointless because it looks as though the Kremlin really does want a war between the West and Iran. I can offer no other explanation for Moscow's behavior, especially taking into account the fact that statements that Russia is emerging from economic crisis have no grounding in reality.
On the other hand, a sharp rise in oil and gas prices as a result of such a war would enable Russia to emerge with full coffers from a crisis that has become a headache for the duo who personify "sovereign democracy" in Russia.
I would go so far as to say that such a political gambit would inevitably result in a Pyrrhic victory for Moscow, and not only because the hundreds of billions of dollars that would flow into the federal budget, the Stabilization Fund, the Reserve Fund, and the Fund for the "Greening of Russia" would certainly not be channeled into diversifying the economy. The past nine years have demonstrated graphically how the Kremlin tries to avoid such idiocies, restricting itself to words that are starkly at odds with its deeds.
War's Main Losers
Russia's foreign-policy influence, which is based on confrontation with the West, on long-standing friendship with rogue states (thank you, former Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov), and on using energy and military force to pressure Europe and its own nearest neighbors, will come to an end very soon. Within five, or at most 10, years after the war with Iran (if indeed it takes place), there will be a regime change in Tehran as a result of the dire economic situation, and Russia will lose any influence on Iran.
Europe, by contrast, will be in a position to buy Iranian gas and thus to talk to Russia on normal terms, and not from a position of weakness. Then fraternal Syria will fall off the Kremlin wall -- Syria, where Russian warships can moor freely as and when they please, and whose "sovereign democracy" Russian military instructors do such a wonderful job of defending from Israeli "aggression."
Recollections of partnership with the regime in Tehran and senseless dreams of a gas monopoly in Europe and influence on the post-Soviet Caucasus will become the last refuge of those who indulged in, and/or proclaimed, the imperial ambitions of an economically weak, but for that very reason extremely aggressive country. Those whose knowledge and capabilities differ from those of their early communist predecessors only in the degree of their greed and thievery.
It's difficult to believe that the Arab states of the Persian Gulf and the Near East, which have a genuine fear of Iran, would agree to cooperate with Moscow, which is doing all it can to provoke a conflict between the West and Tehran, especially as those states would be directly affected by Iran's response in that conflict.
No Hope For Change
The Kremlin's adaptation of Stalin's approach that led to the start of World War II -- "We'll maneuver them into a fight and then move in and pick up the pieces" -- will not bring the Kremlin any long-term dividends.
There will be more grandiose "national projects," fewer results, the money will run out or be diverted into various pockets (there have been many examples of that remarkable phenomenon), and no one will let anyone take anything. On the contrary, the Russian leadership duo will be left empty-handed.
In fact, all this may well happen even without a war in Iran, over more or less the same time period, and with the same miserable outcome for Russia. There is simply no chance either for a real improvement in relations between the present Russian leadership and the West, or for implementing the domestic political and economic reforms that Russia desperately needs.
In the absence of basic freedoms, a civil society, and economic expertise, a regime that relies only on dubious strength and on natural resources is doomed to suffer major domestic and foreign policy and financial defeats, even if it enjoys the support of a population that for centuries has refused to understand how it is being abused.
You may call me a dreamer, a Russophobe, or worse, but this is the reason why Russia will have to learn geopolitical literacy from its own mistakes, to the accompaniment of slightly adapted but still familiar Kremlin slogans, declarations of its own greatness, and parallel threats to the West.
Where's your shoe, Khrushchev? It's the last hope we have! And that is both sad and frightening, as no one can predict what the likely consequences of that exercise will be, either for the Russian Federation or for the rest of the world.
Dmitry Sidorov is a Moscow-based commentator. The views expressed in this commentary, which originally appeared in Russian on the website "Yezhednevny zhurnal," are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Originally Published on September 14, 2008
MOSCOW AND SOCHI - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Friday:
"We know that certain players are planning an attack against Iran. But we oppose any unilateral step and military solution to the nuclear crisis," he added.Speaking at the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual forum of opinion-makers in Moscow, Medvedev also said:
"The world does not need to tighten its sanctions on Iran at this time."The discussions at Valdai dealt with Russia's international role. In response to a question from Haaretz as to whether the Middle East conference Russia is planning to host in the fall shows involvement similar to that once displayed by the Soviet Union, Medvedev said that Russia is not the heir to the Soviet Union.
"Russia has a completely different value system," he said. "When it proposes a mediation service, its sole intention is to assist in bringing about a peace that both Jews and Arabs will enjoy."A day before the discussion with Medvedev, the forum's members met with Russia's former president and incumbent prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Putin said he considers Russia's presence in the Middle East important and that his country intended to use Syrian ports "as it did in the past, but not for defined purposes."
The president's adviser, Oleg Tsatsurin, told Haaretz:
"Russia would not take any action that would change the balance of power in the Middle East or harm the excellent relations between Russia and Israel."