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Western Press Review: U.S.-Russian Relations Vexed By Contrasting Strategies On Iran

Prague, 29 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- We begin RFE/RL's review of the Western press today with a look at Russian-U.S. relations, which are becoming increasingly complicated as Washington steps up its pressure on Iran, a Moscow ally. We also examine ongoing stability in Afghanistan and renewed international efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


An analysis by "Jane's Intelligence Digest" looks at U.S.-Russian relations in light of the stronger rhetoric coming from Washington regarding Iran. Russia has long been helping Iran develop a nuclear energy plant at Bushehr, a project both Moscow and Tehran insist has no weapons applications but which has been a source of concern to the United States.

Since the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Russia has made some "cautious moves" to rebuild relations with Washington, following the contentious wrangling at the UN ahead of the war. But "Jane's" predicts the U.S.-Russian relationship will not return to the "strategic partnership" that developed following the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Three main issues stand in the way of a return to the U.S.-Russian friendship, says "Jane's." First, Russia and France "strongly support the concept of a 'multipolar world' -- which is a euphemism for opposing U.S. unilateralism."

Second, Washington and Moscow "differ fundamentally over what action to take to combat international terrorism and, indeed, how to define 'terrorism.' Western and Russian critics of Moscow's policies in Chechnya believe Moscow's heavy-handed approach actually breeds terrorism by brutalizing the population."

The third major issue is what "Jane's" calls "Moscow's determination to support Iran" in its development of nuclear energy facilities, at Bushehr and elsewhere. The analysis predicts that Russia's relationship with Washington will remain "lukewarm" as long as its nuclear partnership with Tehran continues.


Today's "International Herald Tribune" reprints a contribution to "The New York Times" by Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Aslund suggests the U.S. administration squandered much of the goodwill Russia offered Washington in the wake of the 11 September attacks. Russian President Vladimir Putin "was among the first foreign leaders to phone" U.S. President George W. Bush when the news broke. During the ensuing war in Afghanistan, Putin allowed U.S. planes overflight rights and did not object to U.S. military bases in Central Asia, traditionally a region of Russian influence.

But Aslund says in the year following the 11 September attacks, the Bush administration "abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and then supported the enlargement of NATO" to Russia's western border, a sensitive issue for Moscow.

"Putin accepted these decisions graciously, but he received nothing in return," says Aslund. "With no results to show from his pro-American policy, he [joined] the French-German position against the war."

Today, Aslund says, the United States has relatively little to offer Putin. The Russian oil industry is "doing well" and the overall economy has been averaging 6 percent growth in the past four years.

"For much of the last decade," he says, the U.S. "was able to dictate the terms of its relations with Russia. The war against Iraq showed that Russia can resist America's demands -- and that it can be strengthened in the process."


A "Chicago Tribune" editorial remarks that there has been "a long-running debate" within the U.S. administration over how to deal with Iran. Iran "has a reform-minded, democratically elected government and a vibrant pro-democracy movement that is working through peaceful means to topple the despotic mullahs who hold most of the power in the country." Many of the nation's pro-democracy reformists hold a "benign" view of the United States, and support a thawing of relations between the two countries. But the "Tribune" says these sentiments "could turn hostile if [the U.S.] is seen as destabilizing Iran. That would be the surest way to extinguish what so far has been an inspiring, grassroots effort to bring greater openness and democracy to Iran's closed society."

The paper says the U.S. administration "should be wary" of rhetoric staunchly advocating "regime change" in Tehran. It surmises that the recent increase in U.S. pressure on Iran is more an attempt to increase Iranian efforts to stem terrorism and abandon its nuclear program, "not to foment instability."

The editorial says what would really frighten Iran's hard-line mullahs, and perhaps aid its democratic reformists, would be to "[build] a democratic Iraq, a self-governed Palestine and a secure Israel." These moves "would be the start of a revolution."


In a joint contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Ahmed Rashid of the "Far Eastern Economic Review" and Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation say the U.S. strategy for stabilizing and reconstructing Afghanistan was "heading for failure" last week, as U.S. forces seemed "unable or unwilling to deal with a deteriorating security situation."

Last week Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai "took the initiative," promising to bring regional warlords under Kabul's control or resign if his plan fails. Karzai summoned them to the capital, "where they agreed to remit taxes to the government and act as officials, not warlords." The authors say Afghanistan is at a "crucial" juncture: "A failure to provide Afghans with security will push that country back to the state of anarchy that gave rise to the Taliban and allowed Al-Qaeda to base itself there."

The billions of dollars of aid promised by the international community have failed to materialize. Each day, regrouped members of the Taliban attack Afghan and U.S. forces. Regional warlords obstruct aid, when it does arrive, from reaching its target. And 2,000 people have died from factional fighting since December 2001.

The authors write: "People in Iraq and elsewhere are watching to see if the U.S. is committed not only to defeating regimes it sees as threats, but to providing security and governance to the long-suffering peoples of those countries. They will draw their conclusions according to the results."


Writing in France's "Liberation," Jacques Amalric says it seems U.S. President George W. Bush has finally realized that it is impossible to remodel the Middle East without seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Bush had remained true to his election campaign promise of not being lured into acting as an intermediary for Mideast peace like his predecessor, Bill Clinton. But the situation has changed in other ways also, Amalric says, as Bush heads to Jordan to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. At upcoming negotiations Yasser Arafat has been replaced by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the new Palestinian prime minister, known for his opposition to the violent tactics of the second intifada.

But ultimately, most changes are only on the surface, Amalric says. Sharon specifically asked that the other members of the diplomatic quartet -- France, the EU, and Russia -- not be present at the meeting, which effectively leaves the United States in charge. And there is continuing speculation over what back-room promises Washington gave Sharon to convince him to take part in negotiations, an option he previously -- and vehemently -- rejected.

Paradoxically, says Amalric, it is the poor state of the Israeli economy that is helping drive the peace plan forward. Recent "unprecedented" statements by Sharon suggested the occupation is undermining Israel's own well-being and threatening to sap its resources.

But Amalric says even if there is new hope in the Middle East, it remains extremely tenuous.


Writing in "The Washington Post," Jim Hoagland says each leader on the way to talks in Jordan -- Israel's Ariel Sharon, Palestinian Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas, and U.S. President George W. Bush -- "has tactical reasons for agreeing to show up." Sharon's acceptance of the road map with conditions looks like "a move made to deflect American pressure." And the map itself has "loopholes galore," says Hoagland. It may yet join numerous others "in the graveyard of failed comprehensive Middle East peace initiatives." Peace plans "are offered up periodically to propitiate the merciless anger of the region, to encourage talking instead of shooting -- even if only for a little while."

Hoagland suggests that Abbas and Sharon should not necessarily follow the road map step by step. Instead, they "should use it to change the leadership dynamic of mutual destruction" that prevailed between Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. It is important for Sharon and Abbas "to demonstrate [that] they can talk reasonably to each other about a peace that neither can grant now. They must show that they understand that plans drawn up by committees of outsiders will not [alone] bring peace to the region. But the road map can serve as a catalyst, or an excuse, for change that is badly needed."