Russian Roulette on Iran

Oct 18, 2007

Update from AIJAC

October 18, 2007
Number 10/07 #05

As readers may be aware, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been the most important barrier to stronger UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, visited Iran this week and made some statements that seem likely to reinforce Iranian intransigence and also promised to finish the Bushehr nuclear reactor. This Update features pieces on the Russian-Iranian relationship.

First up, the Israeli daily Haaretz editorialises about the destructiveness of Russia’s current policy on Iran. It points out the extent to which Russia is in effect excusing Iranian behaviour, and how isolated it has become internationally in its approach to the Iranian nuclear program. For the newspaper’s call for Russia to play a more positive role, CLICK HERE.

Next up, Middle East scholar Michael Rubin argues that continuing to seek Russian approval and assistance in preventing a nuclear Iran is a lost cause. He argues that the multilateral instinct in this case essentially empowers Russia, which, according to its own realist calculations, gains nothing from helping, even if it fears a nuclear Iran, because it believes it can leave the heavy lifting to the US in stopping the program. There is also much more about the need to regard multilateralism as a tool, not a goal in itself, in stopping Iran. To read it all, CLICK HERE.

Finally, former Jerusalem Post editor Bret Stephens looks at the current US proposal to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist organisation. He assembles the overwhelming evidence that this body sponsors and organises terrorism, including especially the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. For his argument that the IRGC can be seen as “Iran’s al-Qaeda”, CLICK HERE.

Editorial: Putin appeases Tehran

Haaretz,  17/10/2007        

Russian President Vladimir Putin landed in Iran yesterday to take part in the summit of Caspian Sea countries. Thus Putin became the first Kremlin leader to visit Iran since Joseph Stalin attended the Tehran Conference in 1943.

In a direct reference to Iran’s nuclear program, Putin said that “the Iranians are cooperating with Russia’s nuclear agencies, and the main objectives are peaceful objectives.”

Before his arrival, Putin ruled out military action against Iran, saying “we were patient and consistently looked for solutions, and it looks like we are finding them.”

Russia and China have for too long been able to stall UN moves toward tougher sanctions on Iran. Aside from them, the international community is by and large united against any Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

United States Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on Monday that all possibilities for solving the crisis with Iran are still on the agenda, and he also called for an increase in international pressure on Tehran. One month ago, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the world must prepare for a possible war against Iran. London and Berlin have also come out with sharp statements against the continued development of Iran’s nuclear program.

Despite the hard line presented by the U.S. and European states, Russia continues its calm talks with Iran – after meeting his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Putin met with Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Last week Putin again said there is no proof Iran wants nuclear weapons. This contradicts the insistence of American, Israeli and other Western intelligence services. Last weekend U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Iranian policy is definitely “vigorous progress toward nuclear weapons.”

A change in Russia’s position – which would be reflected in exerting diplomatic pressure on Iran and supporting further sanctions – would contribute to Tehran’s effective isolation, and could also persuade Iran’s leaders to abandon the nuclear program. Russia has suspended the construction of the nuclear reactor in Bushehr, claiming belated payments from Iran, but only yesterday closed a deal with Tehran to sell 50 jet engines to Iran’s air force. Ahmadinejad commended the cooperation with Russia, calling it “Iran’s ally” in an interview with the Russian news agency.

As a state wishing to regain a significant international role and wield influence on Israeli public opinion, Russia must present an unequivocal position against the Iranian nuclear program, and add its weight to the campaign pressuring Iran to respond to the international community’s demands.


Russian Roulette on Iran


Wall Street Journal, October 3, 2007; Page A18

Last week, the United States turned to the United Nations in an attempt to increase pressure on Iran. The U.S. wanted to expand sanctions against the budding nuclear power.

Neither China nor Russia would go along. And faced with the prospect of one or the other vetoing sanctions at the U.N. Security Council, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice punted. She put off further action against Iran until at least November.

It’s hard to see how much will change in a month. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is firm in his opposition to sanctions. “Interference by way of new sanctions would mean undermining” the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as it puts pressure on Iran, he said.

This is a charade. The statement came three days after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that, based on his talks with IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei, he considered the nuclear file closed. Not only could Iran continue enriching uranium regardless of U.N. Security Council resolutions, the Iranian president said, but Tehran could also export its enriched uranium and nuclear know-how to other Muslim countries.

Yet, the Bush administration continues to seek agreement with Russia with Ms. Rice’s undersecretary Nicholas Burns talking about Washington’s desire for “compromise” with Moscow. British Foreign Minister David Milbrand is no better. He puts unity above all else: “The most important thing is that the unanimity of the international community.”

The debate over Iran then reflects two much larger debates: Whether foreign policy should be unilateral or multilateral and whether it should be based on “realism” or on principle.

Unilateralism, of course, has become a dirty word since the invasion of Iraq. But international venality — expressed in French and Russian business deals with Saddam Hussein — had undercut sanctions against Iraq. That left Mr. Bush with little choice other than to stick with a failing multilateralist policy or to act unilaterally.

Now we’re seeing that in the case of Iran, “realism” and multilateralism may be mutually exclusive in the effort to curtail proliferation. Or put another way, multilateralism empowers Moscow and Moscow isn’t inclined to make a multilateral sanctions regime effective.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, realism is a zero-sum game that maximizes Russian power at U.S. expense. The U.S. can seek Russian cooperation, but for Russian realists, inaction looks like the best option. A nuclear capable Iran is inimical to Russian interests, but Mr. Putin may have seen in Mr. Bush’s soul a commitment to deny Tehran nuclear capability at any cost. So why not profit both financially and strategically?

Russia and China have made billions as enablers to Iran’s military ambitions. Less than a month after the 9/11 terror attacks, Moscow signed a $7 billion arms deal with Tehran. The Iranian government has paid Russia’s state-owned Atomstroiexport more than $1 billion to construct the Bushehr nuclear plant. A 2003 CIA issued report credited Russian, Chinese and North Korean experts for Iran’s ballistic-missile advances.

Alexander Denisov, deputy director of the Russian Federal Service for Military and Technical Cooperation said bluntly in 2005, “First of all, we have to count in our national interests. In Syria, we have a huge market, over 80% of Soviet-made arms. The same is true about Iran.” Late last year, Russia’s state-run Rosoboronexport shipped a $700 million air-defense and missile system to Iran. Last month, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization said his government had won a Russian commitment to complete the Bushehr reactor prior to a visit by Mr. Putin to Tehran later this month.

While a nuclear Iran would threaten U.S. national security and shred the international non-proliferation regime, a U.S. military strike on Iran would be costly. Iranians may find Mr. Ahmadinejad odious, but they may respond to a strike by rallying around the flag. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard is also capable of striking anywhere from Baghdad to Buenos Aires and is able to set Lebanon and even northern Israel aflame.

On Sept. 29, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps claimed the ability to monitor all movement in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf. The threat is clear: Any conflict with Iran could drive oil over $120 a barrel. This would likely hurt the U.S. economy, but it would also accelerate Russia’s return to a dominant position in the world.

Russian realists relish such a scenario. The Kremlin has converted its multibillion-dollar oil windfall into power and influence. Mr. Putin has increased defense procurement by more than 50% over the past two years. Russia has developed a new class of nuclear submarines and a new generation of nuclear missiles. Moscow leverages money into military strength.

Already, Russia uses European aversion to conflict to its advantage. The same European leaders upon whose good faith Ms. Rice pegs U.S. national security have been willing to demote the Czech Republic and Poland to second-class status within NATO to assuage the Kremlin.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Ms. Rice was the point woman for Soviet affairs on the National Security Council. She distinguished herself for poor instincts with her opposition to Ukrainian independence, among other issues. What Ms. Rice believes conciliatory, Mr. Putin sees as weakness. She may confuse realism with idealism; Mr. Putin, the former KGB apparatchik, will not.

Realism may prevail, but not Washington’s realism. The defiant Mr. Ahmadinejad offers the White House a stark choice: Live with a nuclear Iran, or take action to stop it. Winning Russian approval is a chimera, delaying an inevitable decision.

Mr. Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


Iran’s al Qaeda

If the Revolutionary Guards aren’t terrorists, who is?


Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, October 16, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT

On the morning of July 18, 1994, a suicide bomber drove a van into the seven-story Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, murdering 85 people and seriously injuring 151 others. Last November, Argentine Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral issued international arrest warrants for eight men–seven Iranians and one Lebanese–wanted in connection to the bombing. Among them are former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, and three other men with one important point in common: All were, or are, senior officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

That’s something both Democratic politicians and Bush administration policy makers might consider in their respective internal debates over whether the IRGC should officially be designated as a foreign terrorist organization. For the administration, which has been mulling the issue since at least August, a terrorist designation for the IRGC is one further way to penalize Iran unilaterally as efforts to obtain a third round of international sanctions stall at the U.N. Security Council. But the Russians, Chinese and some of the Europeans are said to fiercely oppose the move, in part because much of their business in Iran runs through IRGC-controlled enterprises.

As for the Democrats, fully half their Senate conference–including Hillary Clinton–voted last month in favor of a symbolic amendment to designate the IRGC a terrorist group, albeit after the original text had been stripped of its prescription to “combat, contain and roll back the violent activities and destabilizing influence” of Iran and its proxies in Iraq. Sen. Clinton defended her vote as a way “to put some teeth into all this talk about dealing with Iran.” But the rest of the Democratic presidential field took exception, with John Edwards insisting that “we cannot give this president an inch, not an inch.”

There certainly is plenty to say about what consequences might flow from an adverse finding of fact about the IRGC. But there is also the matter of the facts themselves. Following the ’94 bombing–which came just two years after the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires had been bombed, killing 22–the Clinton administration wasted little time fingering what it then believed was the likeliest suspect. “I am very distressed that some of our allies . . . do not recognize the full responsibility of Iran for Hezbollah attacks around the world,” said then Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

It also became quickly apparent that the two attacks had been coordinated through Iran’s embassy in Argentina. In 1998 an Iranian defector to the U.S. named Ahmad Rezai confirmed that “the attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires was planned in Tehran.” He added that the decision to attack had been made by Mr. Rafsanjani and his top deputies (reportedly at an Aug. 14, 1993 meeting in the Iranian city of Mashad), and that the bombers had been trained for the mission in Lebanon by IRGC officers.

Mr. Rezai was uniquely positioned to know the facts: His father, Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, was the commander of the IRGC at the time, and the younger Rezai had accompanied his father to Lebanon to witness the training. Ahmad Rezai has since reportedly returned to Iran, though whether he did so voluntarily or under duress isn’t clear. As for Mohsen Rezai, he is among the eight whose arrest is sought by Judge Corral in connection to the 1994 attack.

The second IRGC officer involved in the 1994 attack is Ahmad Reza Asghari (a k a Moshen Randjbaran, and not to be confused with Ali Reza Asghari, a former IRGC commander who either defected or was kidnapped by a foreign intelligence service from Turkey last year). According to the definitive Argentine report on the bombing, Mr. Asghari–officially the third secretary of the Iranian embassy until his abrupt departure from Argentina on July 1–was present at the Aug. 14, 1993 meeting with Mr. Rafsanjani. Mr. Asghari is described in the report on the bombing as the man “responsible for activating the clandestine networks of Iranians in Argentina.”

Then there is Ahmad Vahidi, who helped oversee the operation from Tehran. According to Iran analyst Alireza Jafarzadeh, Mr. Vahidi founded the IRGC’s “Lebanon Corps” in the 1980s, meaning he is responsible for the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks that left 241 American servicemen dead. He was later appointed the first commander of the IRGC’s Qods (Jerusalem) Force, with oversight of “extraterritorial operations,” including in Europe and South America. In 2003, the Washington Post reported that “Bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman Zawahiri, used his decade-old relationship with Mr. Vahidi, then commander of the Jerusalem Force, to negotiate a safe harbor for some of al Qaeda’s leaders who were trapped in the mountains of Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001, according to a European intelligence official.”

Today, Mr. Vahidi is Iran’s deputy defense minister. The elder Mr. Rezai made a run for president in 2005, but dropped out at the last minute to make way for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Until earlier this year he was secretary of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council. Mr. Asghari’s whereabouts are less clear, though his name surfaced as a delegate to a 2002 U.N. conference in Geneva, where he was listed as the Iranian foreign ministry’s first secretary in the department for international economic affairs.

That, then, is how the Islamic Republic treats its terrorist all-stars. As for the Argentines, after nearly a dozen years of botched investigations tainted by allegations of high-level corruption, President Néstor Kirchner bucked Iranian threats and denounced Tehran last month before the U.N. General Assembly. His courage on this front is all the more remarkable given that he’s better known as one of Hugo Chávez’s more reliable allies in South America.

Which leaves the United States. No doubt the State Department has its reasons to demur at a terrorist designation, just as Mr. Edwards has his reasons to attack the president, and Mrs. Clinton, at every turn. But in the matter of the IRGC, the truth deserves at least an inch, whatever the consequences. It’s the sort of point only a politician–or maybe a diplomat–could fail to see.

Mr. Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board.


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