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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Three 'Freedom-Loving States'

Washington, 2 October 1997(RFE/RL) - Russian involvement in the French-led consortium for the development of gas deposits in Iran, a country the United States has sought to isolate economically and politically, has given Moscow three important geopolitical victories.

First, it has allowed Russia to side openly with the West Europeans against the United States, thereby increasing Russian influence on the former with apparently little cost to Russian cooperation with the latter.

Even though many West European countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Tehran, virtually all of them believe that isolating Iran as the Americans urge will not contribute to political change there.

More than that, the Europeans almost universally feel that Washington's threats of imposing sanctions on non-American firms investing in Iran is a most unfortunate form of American overreach.

Second, Russian involvement has increased Moscow's influence in Iran and thus given Russia expanded opportunities to determine when or even whether oil and gas can flow from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the West.

Such Russian leverage in Tehran on the possible flow of petroleum will quickly translate into immediate Russian political leverage in the capitals of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Gazprom, the Russian partner in this latest project, is unlikely to be able to make significant investments in Iran. But its presence in the consortium, combined with Russian supplies of nuclear materials and weapons systems to Tehran, will give it a major voice.

And third, it has increased Russian influence in many countries of the Middle East both because Moscow has proved willing to cooperate with an Islamic state at odds with the West and because the Russian government has taken this step over vocal American opposition.

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov, a longtime Middle East hand with close ties to anti-American governments in the region, is clearly playing an old Moscow card: side with radical Muslim regimes and seek to portray the U.S. as too closely tied to Israel.

Up to now, most observers in the West have downplayed Moscow's role either because Washington has focused its criticism on France or because they believe that Russian involvement in Iran is the product of forces President Boris Yeltsin does not control.

But in an interview carried by Russian and French television on Wednesday, Yeltsin demonstrated that Russian involvement reflects a clearly articulated policy and that Moscow may be the big winner in this project, even if it does not reap the largest financial rewards.

Discussing this latest international investment project in Iran and American opposition to it, Yeltsin said "Thank God, Russia, France, and Iran are independent, freedom-loving states," adding that interference by any state is not to be tolerated."

Moreover, the Russian leader went on to say that Moscow's cooperation with Paris represented yet "another instance of the coincidence of views" between their two countries.

At the very least, this statement suggests Moscow is trying to exploit a situation created by American efforts to isolate Iran because of Tehran's sponsorship of terrorism and by rising opposition to Washington's policy in Western Europe and the Middle East.

But Yeltsin's remarks may point to an even more important shift in Moscow's policies. They suggest that Yeltsin and his government have now decided that despite weaknesses at home, they can now begin to recoup some of their past influence abroad.

And Yeltsin's words suggest that Russia will once again try to do so by exploiting or exacerbating tensions between the United States, its allies and the countries of the Middle East. Most of the discussion of this French-led consortium in Iran has focused on either the profits this deal will bring to Paris or the political breakout it may help Tehran to make.

But the gains Russia seems set to make as a result seem likely to be far larger than any of those being calculated in either the French or Iranian capital, let alone anywhere else.