Thursday, January 26, 2006

Why Russia might matter more 

Now that we're aware of the situation with gas in Ukraine and the South Caucasus, we might be able to better address the question I raised last Saturday with Captain Ed over whether it's China or Russia that is going to matter more in the West's dispute with Iran over nuclear development.

Russia is being seen as a go-between for Iran through its help developing Iran's nuclear power facilities at Bushehr. This now has expanded to Russia creating a joint enrichment program on Iranian soil, with the apparent blessings of Europe. For their part, the U.S. State Dept. has said that having the Russians involved in affairs is providing some reassurances:
...the history of those discussions is one of frustration on the part of the Russians. They have put forward a proposal that, as I described before, would address Iran's stated desire to have peaceful nuclear energy. And we would question why the need for peaceful nuclear energy, given the fact that Iran is sitting on top of some of the world's largest hydrocarbon reserves, but put that aside, and that would give objective guarantees that would provide the international community some comfort that Iran couldn't use that mechanism to try to obtain a nuclear weapon.
Of course, the Iranians say, if you refer us to the Security Council all this nice cooperation is off. Who would be harmed most by this, and who would intercede in the Council to prevent sanctions? Ed argued for China, but I argue for Russia. The pipelines give us part of the story.

When the pipeline fires left Georgia and Armenia without gas in a very cold winter, the Iranians offered up gas to cover the shortfall until the pipeline could be repaired. The Iranians would love to drive a wedge between Georgia and the west, which has viewed the Rose Revolution as a crowning achievement of Bush's desire to spread democracy. Armenia, not nearly as big on the West's radar, has already been striking deals for Iranian gas. Armenia pays for the gas by bartering its excess nuclear electricity capacity. This of course harms the ability of Gazprom to maintain its power in the region. Why do that, if not because Russia and Iran are cooperating beyond Bushehr?

Russia's Caucasian flank has always been difficult for it to defend, and of course the north Caucasus contains Chechnya, Ossetia and other areas of unrest, much of it connected with Islamic terror. It is in Russia's interest to keep Iran placated to prevent an upsurge of terrorist activities in its 'near abroad'. It therefore has a real interest in Iran's plans for nuclear development, whatever they are, not being seen as dashed by Moscow.

So the question between Ed and me comes to this: Which is the greater motivation to protect Iran? China's never-ending thirst for energy? Or Russia's desires both to protect its soft underbelly and to gain more access to warm-water ports? (Remember, they're not on all that solid a footing in Crimea any more.)