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Georgia Conflict Could Produce Split On Iran Sanctions

The Russian military operation in Georgia and Moscow's apparent attempts to reassert itself in its "near abroad" and beyond are bound to lead to a fundamental reassessment of strategic interests in the West. The United States, the EU, and NATO are already reexamining the underlying basis of the idea of partnership with Russia, and there will be, as U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said, "further consequences for what Russia has done."

For the time being, the West is focused on the speedy withdrawal of the Russian forces from Georgia, a focus that was clearly underlined by NATO foreign ministers at an emergency meeting in Brussels on August 19. The ministers emphasized that there would be no normal relations with Russia as long as Moscow had troops in Georgia.

The Georgia crisis will also have repercussions on the Middle East and, in particular, on the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. The conflict in Georgia has temporarily taken attention away from that issue, but rising tensions between the United States and Russia could affect future cooperation in handling Iran. They could even jeopardize the U.S. strategic objective of stepping up pressure on Tehran with another round of UN sanctions.

Iran's significant silence on the Georgia conflict, which it has been watching closely from a military standpoint, indicates Tehran's tacit satisfaction of the growing rift between Russia and the West.

Although Moscow has already voted in support of three sets of Security Council sanctions against Iran, relations between the two countries are good, although Tehran must be concerned about Russia's projection of military power abroad, something that has not been seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Russia has been supplying sophisticated weaponry to Iran, including the TOR-M1 short-range air-defense system to protect its nuclear sites. There have been reports that Moscow intends to provide the highly effective S-300 air-defense system, which has a 150-kilometer range. Russia is still working on the Bushehr civilian nuclear power plant, and Moscow could help Tehran realize its ambition of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In addition, Iran, Russia, and the other Caspian Sea littoral states are in the process of defining the legal status of the Caspian and its vast energy resources.

Friendly Gesture, Or National Interest?

In short, Russia is a strategic partner for Iran and Tehran is strongly interested in continued good relations with Moscow. And any rift between Moscow and the West can be, to say the least, a distraction from the question of Iran's nuclear program.

Reza Taqizadeh, an Iran expert from Glasgow University in Scotland, tells RFE/RL's Radio Farda that "due to the current rift between the United States and Russia, the possibility of these two countries cooperating, in the short term, in the Security Council over Iran's nuclear issue is unlikely. Iranian officials will try to take advantage of this situation and gain as many concessions as possible from the 5+1 group before reaching a conclusion with the group."

However, Mohammad Reza Jalili, from the Graduate School of International Studies in Geneva, argues that -- the rift between Moscow and Washington notwithstanding -- "Russia is basically against a nuclear Iran and will eventually cooperate with the United States to curb Iran's enrichment program."

"No substantial changes are envisaged in Moscow's policy toward Iran's nuclear issue," Jalili said, "though Russia might delay a decision on the next [Security Council] resolution or reduce the level of further sanctions that may be imposed on Iran."

Secretary Rice, speaking on the eve of her departure to France and Georgia last week, stressed that it is in Russia's interest to remain engaged on Iran. "It is striking to me that anyone would believe that Russia is involved in trying to keep Iran from getting...a nuclear weapon as a favor to the United States," she said. Washington's official position is that Russia cooperates with the United States about Iran's nuclear issue because it is in Moscow's national interest to do so.

But Russia, which clearly believes the United States and NATO are advancing geopolitical and military agendas that run counter to Russia's interests, may be rethinking its positions as relations with the West cool. Some analysts warn that if Moscow drifts from the West, it will move closer to countries like China or even Iran. The effects of such a reorientation would be felt around the world.

"Georgia is a marginal issue to the United States," a Stratfor analyst has written. "Iran is a central issue." As a result, he concludes, Washington must "seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran." If the rift continues, Moscow could drag its heels on cooperation regarding Iran and the United States and the EU could be forced to impose sanctions on its own, a measure that would be far less forceful than UN-authorized sanctions.