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SAVING GRACE
- What Russia did not do with regard to Iran's nuclear programme

The Kremlin's intervention in the Iranian nuclear stalemate, which took one difficult problem off Manmohan Singh's table last week, must open the eyes of those Indians who have lately found it fashionable to run down Russian diplomacy and jumped onto the bandwagon which favours downgrading strategic ties between New Delhi and Moscow.

The way the Russians went about defusing a potentially fractious meeting of the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna last week must count among Russian diplomacy's finest moments since Vladimir Putin determined that the Kremlin must once again be counted in delicate international negotiations after several disastrous years for its foreign policy under his inglorious predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

What matters about the Russian initiative, which staved off a crisis in Vienna last week, is what Russia did not do over Iran's nuclear programme, although much has been said and written about what Russian diplomats did in order to make the IAEA conclave a virtual anti- climax.

It is a tribute to the fine line which Putin's foreign policy aides have walked on Iran that to date, there is not a single piece of paper on which Moscow has put down what it intends to do as part of the much-publicized formula that prevented a reference of Iran's nuclear programme by the IAEA to the United Nations security council.

When Igor Ivanov, head of Russia's security council, visited Tehran a fortnight before the latest Vienna meeting, he verbally discussed the Russian compromise with the Iranians. It is well-known now that the compromise would have let Iran continue to process uranium ore into refined yellowcake and then convert that yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride gas at their nuclear plant in Isfahan. The actual enrichment, the next and the more controversial aspect of Iran's nuclear programme, would, however, be carried out in Russia at a plant in which the Iranians would invest, making it a joint venture.

It was widely expected that some time after Ivanov's departure, the Russian ambassador to Tehran, Alexander Sadonikov, would go back to the Iranian foreign ministry and hand over at least a non-paper on Ivanov's proposal, but to date nothing of that sort has happened. Nor did the Russian permanent representative to the UN organizations in Vienna transmit any written proposal to IAEA director general, Mohammed ElBaradei, before he travelled to Washington earlier this month and discussed the Russian compromise with the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.

The significance of what Russia did not do is far-reaching. Essentially, this puts the onus of resol- ving the stalemate over Iran's nuc- lear programme squarely on the EU-3, namely, Britain, France and Germany: they have communicated to the Iranians in writing, their commitment to resume negotiations.

The Russians have got involved, but only to avoid an immediate crisis. They are suspicious of American intentions on Iran and they are clearly not in a mood to be made scapegoats for any failure of diplomacy in dealing with Tehran. They do not want to be in the situation in which UN weapons inspectors in Baghdad found themselves before George W. Bush's ill-fated invasion of Iraq, which now threatens to undermine his presidential legacy. The Russians do not even want to be anywhere nearly in the same boat as the Chinese, who found themselves holding the key to the diplomatic efforts over North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.

At the heart of this Russian reluctance to get inextricably involved in diplomatic initiatives over Iran, is the realization that a decade or so down the road, other things being equal, Iran is bound to be a nuclear weapons state. The Americans, the Europeans or others may be able to delay that eventuality, but it cannot be prevented because the global nuclear non-proliferation regime is crumbling and all the proverbial Humpty-Dumpties cannot put it together any more.

Those who want to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weaponry have so far been unable to dent its nuclear ambitions, also because Iranian diplomacy has been more than a match for their own. Few countries have been comprehensively isolated on the international arena the way Iran has been since Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile and proclaimed the Islamic Republic 26 years ago.

Iran has survived that isolation to a remarkable degree by judiciously mixing and re-matching its friends, but most of all, by making national pride the foundation of its foreign policy. It is a policy that India's communist parties, which are very good at protecting the interests of countries other than their own, could learn much from.

There was a time when Iran, the world's only Shia republic, had no friends in the Islamic world. Yet, Tehran eventually managed to head the Organisation of Islamic Conference, and lead the OIC fairly creatively during its chairmanship.

Take south Asia, for instance. Since 1993, Iran has enjoyed equally strong relations with both India and Pakistan, which is laudable not only because Tehran is committed to promoting Islamic causes worldwide, but also because it is an achievement which the Russians, the Chinese and the Americans have long tried for in vain: the Americans have only recently managed to have a satisfactory partnership with south Asia's two hostile neighbours.

Iran insists that its nuclear programme is peaceful. But Iran's eventual emergence as a nuclear weapons state is inevitable because it is only normal for a country its size and circumstances to nurse such ambitions. The international community cannot really deny Tehran the right to pursue a civilian nuclear programme, howsoever strongly Washington may seek to do so. If the five nuclear armed powers had all along fulfilled their part of the bargain under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty of supplying others the technologies that they were entitled to under the NPT, the case for stronger action against Iran would have got wider international support. Many nuclear have-nots have experiences that are similar to Iran's ' of having been denied goods and technology by a discriminatory non-proliferation regime: that is why many non-aligned states, for instance, are unwilling to go along with the West in punishing Tehran.

The big problem for Washington ' and now the EU-3 ' is that Iran knows precisely what it is doing. Those in charge of Iran's diplomacy and nuclear programme are fully aware how far and how fast they can go along the nuclear route. They take one step at a time. Iran faltered in September and paid a big price at the IAEA, when the UN's nuclear watchdog broke with its convention of creating a consensus and went in for a vote on Iran.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has since paid a big price for the mistakes caused by his inexperience, which led to this misstep. Within a week of the Vienna vote ' which caused a political storm in India ' Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, stepped in to give the expediency council, headed by the wily and experienced former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the power to over- see and adjudicate decisions by Ahmadinejad.

Although the new president has since realized the limits to his power ' Iran's parliament has thrice vetoed his choice of oil minister ' Ahmadinejad is opting for Lalu Prasad-style populism by actions such as taking commercial flights and asking people to communicate with him directly by e-mail. On the nuclear issue, however, Ahmadinejad has only two choices: either to fall in line with the Tehran establishment or to realize the conventional wisdom of this establishment which knows the long-term direction of its nuclear policy.

But to get back to Russian involvement: if the Russian effort to lead Iran along the road to developing civilian nuclear facilities is successful ' notwithstanding any Iranian intentions on the military side ' the arrangement can serve as a model for Russia's future relations with similarly placed non-nuclear weapons states. That can be a boon for the large, but underutilized Russian nuclear sector.

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