Walking a Nuclear Tightrope

Russia's message to Iran is: You have a right to enrich uranium for civilian needs, but you don't have to do it now. Russia supports you, but you are liable to lose our support if you are too stubborn.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week in Tehran that he supports Iran's nuclear program. He added that he is interested in a strong Iran and signed an arms deal to provide jet engines for Iran's state-of-the-art combat plane. But Putin also refused to commit himself to a date when Russia will supply enriched uranium for the nuclear-powered electricity plant it is building in Iran's port city of Bushehr. Confusing? Definitely.

This confusion is exactly what allows Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's associates, who are experts at spin, to disseminate the claim - as they did over the weekend - that it was the prime minister who convinced Putin not to send Iran the first delivery of enriched uranium the reactor needs to be started. Even Strategic Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman (and we can wonder why he was not invited to join the trip) hinted that Israel was involved in the matter. That is utter nonsense, of course.

Russia under Putin does not change its views so quickly. Certainly not because of Israel. Russia has a clear and consistent foreign policy. It was consolidated over the past four years in light of the sharp rise in energy prices, which turned Russia into a rich country, and thanks to Putin's leadership, which seeks to challenge the United States and restore Russia's former glory.

Putin is not trying to restore relations with the U.S. and the West to the days of the Cold War, but neither is he willing to waive Russia's wishes and interests in favor of the West's. The complexity characterizing Putin's foreign policy is causing the messages emerging from Moscow on Iran to sound ambiguous and confusing. Russia does not want its Shi'ite Muslim neighbor to have nuclear weapons, but it also sees Iran as an important market for the sale of arms and nuclear power plants for producing electricity. As far as Russia is concerned, Iran has been a target of diplomatic influence throughout history.

Above all, Russia is opposed to solving the crisis of the Iranian nuclear program by military means. It believes the Iranian leaders can still be convinced to postpone, at least for a while, the realization of their right to enrich uranium by themselves on a low level for civilian needs. That means Putin will not agree, at least not publicly, neither by silence nor by a wink, to an American military attack against Iran, not to mention an Israeli one.

For several years the European Union countries, backed by the Bush administration, tried to formulate a "carrot-and-stick" policy toward Iran. They offered it benefits and diplomatic, economic and technological incentives, including nuclear ones, if it would agree to stop enriching uranium. This approach worked for a year and a half during the term of the previous president, Mohammed Khatami. But in 2005 Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president and reshuffled the deck.

In his approach to Iran, Putin is actually improving on the European carrot-and-stick method. When it comes to Israeli and international demands, if there is a chance Iran will listen to anyone, it will listen to Moscow. Russia's message to Iran is: You have a right to enrich uranium for civilian needs, but you don't have to do it now. Russia supports you, but you are liable to lose our support if you are too stubborn.

For Russian diplomacy to be effective, it is accompanied by a double game and ambiguous statements. Russia joined the sanctions imposed on Iran by the UN Security Council, but for the time being opposes additional sanctions. All these steps were meant to preserve Russia's deterrent power against Iran. This is a policy of walking a tightrope, which is like riding a wild horse. Though there is a chance the rider will succeed in restraining the horse, he is also liable to lose the reins, and with them, control.