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Iran's influence in the Middle East is being strengthened not only because of the opportunities created by the frustration of U.S. power in Iraq, but also because of the diplomatic protection it has been receiving from China and, most importantly, from Russia.

Russia, by wielding the threat of its UN Security Council veto, spent much of the past two years whittling away at the proposed list of sanctions that might be slapped on Iran for its refusal to honor its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency over its nuclear program. As a result, the sanctions now imposed by the Security Council are so tepid that they are unlikely to be effective.

Russia sees its relations with Iran as leverage to influence diplomacy in the wider Middle East, where the U.S. has successfully sought to exclude the Kremlin since the end of the Cold War. Russia's other self-interest has been to exempt from sanctions the Bushehr nuclear reactor that it is building for Iran (to be in operation later this year), and to ward off a UN-sponsored financial squeeze on Iran that might put at risk the profits Russia hopes to earn from providing nuclear fuel for the reactor.

Russian President Vladimir Putin argues that Iran, unlike North Korea, has not expelled IAEA nuclear inspectors, quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) or conducted a weapons test so it should be dealt with gently. But without making Iran weigh real costs against its nuclear plans, it will have little reason to consider the suspension of uranium enrichment and plutonium dabbling (both are usable for nuclear fuel-making but abominable for bomb-making), which the Europeans and the United States have made a condition for serious negotiations to take place.

Russia trades heavily with Iran, which is another reason it is wary of sanctions against it. But the U.S. has been leaning on foreign banks to curb their dealings with Iran. Last month, it added five companies (four in China, and another in the U.S. but representing a Chinese outfit) to its list of those fingered for assisting Iran's weapons program and thus banned from doing business with American companies. There is a growing fear in Moscow that the U.S. administration is now looking at Russian companies with similar ties to Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Russian policy, based on immediate monetary gain and a hope of diplomatic influence, is dangerously short-sighted. (Ukraine, for its part, opted not to participate in building the Bushehr reactor.) If suspicions are correct that Iran has been secretly learning how to build and trigger a nuclear device, and also to shape a missile cone to carry such a warhead (as well as publicly developing nuclear-capable, far-flying missiles), then once it has fully mastered uranium enrichment, it will soon be poised to break out - at short notice, at a moment of its choosing - from the NPT's limits. By enfeebling diplomacy, Russia is taking the world into more dangerous territory.

This is doubly short-sighted as a nuclear-armed Iran on Russia's border is not in the latter's national interest, particularly with Russia's own 20 million Muslim citizens becoming increasingly radicalized. Indeed, Russia's Muslim population is the only sector of the Russian population that is growing, which means Muslims will become a bigger and bigger factor in Russian domestic politics in the decades ahead. That Iran is often seen as a principal backer of the Chechen separatists is also evidence of the truly short-sighted nature of Russian policy.

But in its quest to enhance its great power prestige today, Russia seems willing to sacrifice its long-term security interests in the region for immediate diplomatic gratification. And it is doing so not only in respect to Iran. The big question about Turkmenistan today is whether the vacuum left by the death of Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmanbashi) will allow Islamic extremism to spill over from neighboring Iran and Afghanistan. Russia is doing its best to see to it that whatever successor regime comes along, it is willing to do the Kremlin's bidding.

Russia has long had the upper hand in Turkmenistan. Most of Turkmenistan's gas is exported through the Russian pipeline system. Gazprom, the Russian state giant, buys gas at relatively low prices, and then distributes it in Russia or sells it at a profit in Europe.

Israel, like Turkey and the U.S., must be hoping that Turkmenistan's new rulers will seek to diversify gas distribution by adopting a project to build a pipeline beneath the Caspian Sea. But diversification is also needed in that country's politics, because the only opposition with any strength in the country is Islamic fundamentalists.

Russia has had centuries of influence in the Middle East and Central Asia in the Russian and Soviet empires. It could serve as a powerful force for good in the region if it stops seeking short-term advantage and begins to act in its own long-term interests, which will best be served by a prosperous, non-nuclear armed Iran, and a far more open Turkmenistan.

The writer is the former prime minister of Ukraine and is currently leader of the opposition there.

Copyright: Project Syndicate