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Analysis From Washington -- The Iranian Challenge

Washington, May 27 (RFE/RL) -- By signing an agreement last week to supply Ukraine with oil, Iran has dramatically expanded its geopolitical challenge not only to Russia but to the West as well.

On May 22, Tehran and Kyiv agreed to a barter arrangement under which Iran will send Ukraine oil in exchange for Ukrainian wheat. As announced, the accord does not specify either the precise amounts involved or the routes by which these two goods will be shipped.

Both of those issues are likely to be important as the two countries seek to fulfill their agreement, but even now it is obvious that by obtaining oil from Iran, Ukraine will gain a greater measure of control over its own economic house and as a result greater independence from Russia. But at the same time, Ukraine may find that this deal will have some costs including in its relations with Washington.

But what is striking is that with this latest move, Iran has begun to play a much broader geopolitical game, one that ostensibly at least has little to do with the export of what many call Islamic fundamentalism and more with the elements of traditional power politics.

Iran's involvement over the past year in supporting Bosnian Muslims, an involvement that was sanctioned if not supported by the United States, represented the first of these moves. More recently, Tehran signed energy export agreements with Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, thus at least potentially undermining Russian influence in both the Transcaucasus and Central Asia.

While some viewed the first of these moves as a kind of necessary evil and others suggested that Iran, which has benefited from Russian exports of nuclear materials and technology, was in fact cagily cooperating with Moscow in these latter deals, it is difficult to see how one could view the latest Iranian-Ukrainian deal in that light.

Russian politicians, including President Boris Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov, and Russian geopoliticians, such as the Moscow Institute of Europe's Sergey Karaganov, have all been very explicit in pointing to the role of oil and gas in promoting Russian interests in what they call the "near abroad" and particularly Ukraine.

Consequently, if Ukraine can acquire oil from another source, Russian leverage will be reduced. And that is just what this latest deal does.

But the latest Iranian move also presents a challenge to the West, albeit one of a cognitive rather than power-political kind.

Some observers, particularly in the United States, are certain to be disturbed by this deal not so much because it promotes Ukrainian independence but because it represents Iran's escape from the political and economic boycott that the U.S. has tried to promote.

But in evaluating what is going on, something important needs to be kept in mind: It is absurd to think that Iran will be sending Korans to Kiev, as Russian commentaries on this deal are likely to suggest and as many Americans may find themselves at least implicitly accepting.

In this case, Iran is behaving like a more normal country, one seeking to advance its own economic and geopolitical interests. As earlier in Bosnia, these interests may in this case parallel those of the West.

That is not to say that the West should welcome the still radical Islamic regime in Tehran back into the family of nations. It continues to act in many areas in ways that will keep it beyond the pale for some time to come.

But it is to argue that in this case and perhaps in others, Iran may be playing a role that should not be characterized as entirely or simply pernicious.