Part of a larger game plan?

In this photo taken on September 15, 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev speaks in his interview with CNN television at his Barvikha residence outside Moscow. Medvedev has said that Israeli officials have assured him that they are not planning a military strike on Iran.   | Photo Credit: Dmitry Astakhov

Russia's apparent hardening of stand on Iran has been widely interpreted as a "reward" for United States President Barack Obama scrapping missile shield plans for Eastern Europe. Moscow, however, is abuzz with speculation of a wider chess game being played targeting the nuclear programme of not only Iran but also Israel.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week hinted that Moscow could go along with the new U.S.-lobbied United Nations sanctions on Iran's nuclear programme. "As to all sorts of sanctions, Russia's position is very simple, and I stated it recently. Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases sanctions are inevitable. Ultimately, it is a matter of choice," Mr. Medvedev said after his meeting with Mr. Obama on the sidelines of the General Assembly in New York.

The White House greeted Mr. Medvedev's words as a U-turn in the Russian stance on sanctions. National Security Council point man on Russia Michael McFaul said the U.S. and Russia had moved "a lot closer, if not almost together" in their objectives on Iran's nuclear programme. "I cannot improve on what President Medvedev said. He could not have been clearer," Mr. McFaul said.

The western media rushed to the conclusion that Moscow had embraced Washington's tough line on Iran in a trade-off for the cancellation of the U.S. plans to deploy missile interceptors in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic, which Russia regarded as a major security threat.

However, the focus of Mr. Medvedev's remarks was very different. Even as he admitted the possibility of further sanctions on Iran, he made clear that it should be an act of last resort. A source in Mr. Medvedev's delegation said that before Russia agreed to discuss further sanctions on Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must provide enough grounds to believe that it was after nuclear weapons.

"Our task is to create a system of incentives that would allow us to resolve the problem of peaceful uses of nuclear energy by Iran, but will stop it from building nuclear weapons," Mr. Medvedev told Mr. Obama. At a meeting with Pittsburg University students a day later, the Russian leader again called for offering Iran "positive incentives" to pursue a just peaceful nuclear programme and open up all its facilities to international oversight. "If we fail in this, then we will discuss other things," Mr. Medvedev said.

His emphasis on the need to "create incentives" clearly implied that these have been lacking so far. In his speech at the U.N. General Assembly last week, Mr. Medvedev indicated what should be done to encourage Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. "One of our most urgent tasks today - I would even say a superurgent task - is to establish a zone in the Middle East that is free of WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) and the means to deliver them."

Without mentioning Israel by name, Mr. Medvedev noted: "In order to progress, all of the region's nations must take an active stance on this issue and demonstrate their willingness to ensure real progress in establishing a nuclear-free zone." In fact, the Russian media have speculated that nuclear disarmament of Israel could be at the core of the new U.S.-Russian understanding on Iran.

Citing unspecified "back-room briefings," the Argumenty Nedely weekly wrote in its latest issue that under pressure from the U.S. and Russia, Israel gave two pledges that paved the way for the complex deal between Russia and the U.S. involving the missile shield and Iran. It allegedly promised to refrain from attacking Iran.

Israel is also said to have agreed to cooperate with IAEA, U.N. nuclear watchdog, and eventually sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would entail giving up its nuclear weapons. This would clearly be conditional on Iran dropping its threats to wipe out Israel and renouncing any ambition to acquire nuclear arms. The paper claimed that Iran had already promised to stop anti-Israeli rhetoric.

Russia's contribution to the deal was twofold: it promised not to supply top-of-the-line air defence systems to Iran and to step up pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. Moscow skilfully played a trump card it had held up its sleeve for several years - supplies of deadly air defence missiles, S-300PMU-1, to Iran under a 2005 contract. In combination with the short-range, anti-aircraft missile system Tor-M1 that Russia sold Iran earlier, the S-300s would enable it to beat back any Israeli or U.S. attack. It could also make Tehran more intransigent in talks over its nuclear programme.

In the past few weeks, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu travelled to Russia for Iran-dominated talks. Following the talks, Mr. Peres said he had secured a promise from Mr. Medvedev that Russia would review its decision to sell the S-300 missiles to Iran. Mr. Medvedev later said the Israeli leaders had promised him that they would not attack Iran.

"We are a peaceful country and we are not going to mount any strikes against Iran," Mr. Medvedev quoted Mr. Peres verbatim last week. As part of the deal, Washington reportedly offered to guarantee Israel's security against Iranian missiles by deploying U.S. Navy Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptors in the Mediterranean under the revised missile shield for Europe. Interestingly, Mr. Obama's foreign policy adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski sensationally suggested that the U.S. missile shield could also guarantee Iran against an Israeli attack. In a recent interview, he said the U.S. should tell Israel that its jets would be shot down if they flew over Iraq on their way to attack Iran ( >www.infowars.com/brzezinski-shoot-down-israeli-planes-if-they-attack-iran ).

The four-corner deal theory sounds too fantastic to be true, but some facts on the ground point to the growing realisation in Washington that sanctions cannot guarantee a nuclear-free Iran.

Earlier this year, Washington's chief nuclear arms negotiator, Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller, called on Israel to sign the NPT ( >http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/may/06/israel-us-nuclear-non-proliferation ). This would require Israel to declare and give up its nuclear arsenal. The demand is in line with Mr. Obama's commitment to universal nuclear disarmament and nuclear weapons-free zones. But it also takes care of Iran's long-standing complaint of double standards on Israel's nuclear weapons.

Last week, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1887 moved by the U.S., which calls upon all states that have not signed the NPT "to accede to the Treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states so as to achieve its universality at an early date, and pending their accession to the Treaty, to adhere to its terms."

A few days earlier, the IAEA meeting in Vienna adopted a resolution expressing concern at Israel's nuclear weapons. It also called on Israel to accede to the NPT and to put its entire nuclear programme under IAEA inspections. It was for the first time in 18 years that the U.N. nuclear watchdog censured Israel, and even though the U.S. and its western allies voted against, Mr. Obama's new nuclear disarmament policy clearly impacted the outcome of the vote.

Even though the world has known for decades that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, the U.S. until now provided diplomatic cover for Israel, neither acknowledging nor denying its nuclear status. However, the pressing need to address Iran's nuclear ambitions is now forcing Washington to treat the two cases on an equal basis. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates is on record stating Iran's motivation in trying to acquire nuclear weapons was self-defence.

"I think that they would see it in the first instance as a deterrent," Mr. Gates said at Congress confirmation hearings in 2006. "They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf." Even though Mr. Gates later tried to disavow his statement saying he was speaking still as a "private citizen," similar ideas were articulated by other voices in Washington.

"If you're really serious about a deal with Iran, Israel has to come out of the closet. A policy based on fiction and double standards is bound to fail sooner or later," Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel, who till recently was a senior director for the Middle East and South Asia on the White House National Security Council, was quoted by the Washington Times in May.

This position would be in line with Mr. Medvedev's call for creating "incentives" for Iran before resorting to sanctions. As for his admission of the theoretical inevitability of sanctions, it probably had more to do with the Russian leader's desire to make a polite gesture towards Mr. Obama to support the new climate of cooperation between Russia and the U.S. as the two countries explore new avenues in dealing with Iran.

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