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. Russia faces high risks, rewards in Iran nuclear crisis
MOSCOW (AFP) Nov 23, 2005
Russia is in a position to make a decisive difference in resolving the prolonged crisis over Iran's nuclear program and will reap substantial strategic gains if it does but will face uniquely heavy losses if its approach with Tehran fails, experts said Wednesday.

Although it is nearing completion of Iran's first atomic power station, Russia has so far had only limited influence in shaping international diplomacy surrounding the Islamic state's nuclear program, which the West fears is a cover for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.

But after failing to make lasting progress with Iran on the issue, the United States and three European Union countries have now handed Moscow the lead role in negotiations aimed at persuading Tehran to abandon its insistence on controlling all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle.

And in contrast to Western diplomacy with Tehran, hinged on a threat of UN Security Council sanctions if Iran pursues uranium conversion under what it says is a strictly civilian energy program, Russia will explore alternative avenues to achieve security goals it shares with the West.

"This is very important for Russian diplomacy," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of the specialized foreign policy review Russia in Global Policy.

"Iran is the last serious international problem where Russia can play a real role and help its Western partners resolve an issue of major importance."

To do that, other experts said, Moscow will stick to its long-held position that the Iran nuclear dossier must remain with the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and that negotiation should continue in a five-party format.

"As of right now, it would take Iran at a very minimum three years to manufacture weapons-grade nuclear material," said Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert with the Moscow Carnegie Center specializing in the Iranian nuclear subject.

"This is not tomorrow. There is still time for talks."

According to Yevseyev, the priority for the new regime in Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, even above developing a nuclear program, is to strengthen its authority within the country and to project its power more broadly throughout the Muslim world.

And Ahmadinejad would like nothing better than to have the Iran nuclear issue referred to the UN Security Council for imposition of sanctions, as this would create a major confrontation with the West and thus further his goal as being seen as a champion for the Islamic world against the West.

"The West thinks it is setting the rules of the game, but in fact it is playing by Iran's rules," Yevseyev said.

As Russia sees it, referral of the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council is a worst-case scenario for nearly all concerned, but is also fraught with particular dangers for Russia.

Should the Security Council move to impose sanctions, Moscow would have only two options: Either agree to sanctions, thereby making an enemy of a powerful Islamic state near its southern border, or veto sanctions, thereby coming into conflict with the West, also not in Moscow's interest.

When Russia and the so-called "EU-3" -- Britain, France and German -- meet Iran on December 6 to resume discussion about Tehran's controversial nuclear program, Moscow should sketch out plans for making this new five-sided format (EU-3, Russia, Iran) the main vehicle for resolving the crisis.

"Russia," Yevseyev explained, "is presently in a state of consultation. So far, not everyone understands that this is necessary," but if the West and Russia continue to pursue their own tracks of communication with Tehran "they will get no results."

As the main contractor in construction of Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Russia alone can always threaten an outright halt to its nuclear cooperation with Tehran as an instrument of persuasion, analysts admitted.

But this would very likely produce not just massive financial losses in current and future projects with Iran but would also throw up new security threats in an already unstable region that the Kremlin has no appetite to see.

Yevseyev noted that if the United States has an interest in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions as a matter of international security principle and to protect Israel -- concerns shared by Russia and compounded by the fact that Russian territory is easily within reach of Iranian missiles.

All rights reserved. 2005 Agence France-Presse. Sections of the information displayed on this page (dispatches, photographs, logos) are protected by intellectual property rights owned by Agence France-Presse. As a consequence, you may not copy, reproduce, modify, transmit, publish, display or in any way commercially exploit any of the content of this section without the prior written consent of Agence France-Presse.

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