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Russia Backs Iran Over Sanctions As Doubts Surface Over Its Real Intentions

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: "Iran is ready for a comprehensive discussion."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: "Iran is ready for a comprehensive discussion."

It's a familiar pattern.

On September 9, Washington warned that Iran may have enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

On September 10, Moscow dismissed growing worry about Iran's nuclear program, indicating it will torpedo a Western push for sanctions against Tehran.

The announcement comes amid speculation that former Russian military officers tried to sell Iran air-defense missiles, and raises fresh doubts about Moscow's role in the international effort to resolve the crisis over Iran.

On September 10, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told reporters that Moscow was upbeat about new Iranian proposals for talks over its nuclear program with the so-called P5+1 group of countries.

"We hope we can resume a full-fledged negotiation process between [the P5+1] and Iran very soon, and move forward in resolving the Iranian nuclear program issue," he said. "The document, I repeat, needs to be examined. It contains proposals that require expert evaluation."

Washington's reaction was polar opposite. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Crowley dismissed Tehran's proposal, saying, "It is not really responsive to our greatest concern, which is obviously Iran's nuclear program."

Instead, the vaguely worded document, published on the website of investigative journalism group ProPublica, called for a world filled with "spirituality, friendship, prosperity, wellness, and security."

Russia usually enjoys good relations with Iran, where Moscow is building a nuclear power plant due to come online later this year. Most foreign policy experts believe that privileged position means the West needs Russian help to settle the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program. But military expert Aleksandr Golts says Russia's influence with Iran is overstated.

"Russia has very few, if any, instruments to influence the Iranians," he says. "I don’t think our cooperation in the military or nuclear fields can influence Iran's position."

Kremlin As Spoiler

Golts says the West's main concern is to stop the Kremlin from acting as a spoiler. Russia is one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which gives Moscow a veto over any resolution. Golts says any concern in Moscow over a nuclear-armed Iran has been overridden by a drive to play a larger role in the world by opposing the West.

"Russia has used Iran as a card in its realpolitik game with the U.S. leadership for a long time," he says.

Iran denies it's developing nuclear weapons, saying it's only interested in peaceful nuclear energy. Moscow backs that position.

On September 10, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he didn't believe the UN would approve a U.S.-backed resolution on new sanctions that would ban Iran from exporting oil and importing gasoline.

"Iran is ready for a comprehensive discussion of the situation," he said, "over what positive role it can play in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the region."

The P5+1 -- the United States, Britain, China, Russia, France, and Germany -- have given Tehran until the end of September to renew negotiations or face new sanctions. The recent diplomatic activity leading up to the deadline coincides with a mystery over a missing ship suspected of secretly carrying an advanced Russian antiaircraft missile system to Iran.

The "Arctic Sea" disappeared in July en route from Finland to Algeria. It was listed as carrying a cargo of timber. Russian officials say the ship was hijacked and that the Russian Navy freed the crew on August 17 off the west coast of Africa. But there is speculation the ship was intercepted by agents from Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

Israel has long sought to stop Russia from selling arms to Iran, and when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped out of sight on September 7, Israeli newspapers reported leaks that he had made a secret trip to Moscow, possibly over the "Arctic Sea" incident. Netanyahu's office said he had visited a secret Mossad facility, triggering a scandal in the Israeli media over a possible false story.

Lavrov on September 10 repeated Moscow's denials that the "Arctic Sea" was carrying missiles. Russian officials also deflected questions about Netanyahu, but have not denied he was in Moscow.

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