Moscow Outplays Washington on the Iranian Chess Board
Moscow has made two seemingly unconnected moves on the Iranian chess board in ten days. On August 11, it announced the deployment of the powerful S-300 interceptor missiles in Abkhazia on the Black Sea and, the next day, set Aug. 21 as the date for loading the first delivery of Russian fuel in the Iranian nuclear reactor in Bushehr marking the onset of its physical launch.
Unclear about possible reactions, anonymous Russian sources tried backpedalling on the latter by putting out word that the announcement was premature and Iran's first nuclear reactor would not be activated before Sept. 26.
In the event, administration circles in Washington shrugged it off with the remark that Russia has set datelines in the past and nothing came of them. In the parlance of the region, Moscow is adept at selling the same carpet (activating Bushehr) over and over but the merchandise has never changed hands.
Moscow used the same tactics with regard to the S-300's deployment in Abkazia – first publicizing it over Russian media, then having "spokesman" backtracking by remarking the missile interceptors were put there two years ago. This flatly contradicted the Russian Air Force commander Gen. Alexander Zelin, who said the missiles had been installed in the last few days. "We have deployed the S-300 system on Abkhaz territory which, alongside other aircraft defense systems of the ground forces, will solve the problems of air defense of the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he said.
But Russia's exercise in obfuscation did not stop there.
So what's the fuss about?
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow sources report that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's office recruited Abkhaz foreign minister, Maxim Gvinjia, to tell the BBC that Gen. Zelin's remark about the S-300s had been misinterpreted.
Adding to the confusion, Sergey Shamba, the breakaway region's prime minister, claimed the missiles were in Abkhazia – and had been there for about a year. US State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley also bolstered the Russian line by saying Washington had been informed of the missiles' deployment two years ago. "It is our understanding," he said, "that Russia has had S-300 missiles in Abkhazia for the last two years. We can't confirm whether they have added to them or not."
According to our sources, both the Russian and American statements on the S-300 interceptors are misleading and wide of the facts. Moscow never notified Washington it was going to install a new advanced system of S-300 missiles at the Gudauta base in Abkhazia on the Black Sea coast, surrounding it with other anti-aircraft batteries, some of which were also deployed in South Ossetia.
Nor did Moscow ever let Washington know that the new missiles were in service and fully integrated in the networks of Russia's Crimean Peninsula naval and air bases and the Russian Black Sea war fleet.
US commanders know better
The common assumption of US military commanders in the Black Sea and Mediterranean regions, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources, is that the Russians emplaced their most sophisticated anti-air anti-missile weapon on Abkhazia's Black Sea coast to counteract US Sixth Fleet warships in the two seas and the two big American air bases near the Black Sea in Romania and Bulgaria – Mikhail Kogalniceanu Air Base near the city of Constanta, and Bezmer Bulgarian Air Base just 50 kilometers from the coast.
Strategic planners of US and Israeli Air Forces, whose air crews are training at these bases, have no doubt that Russia moved the S-300 into Abkhazia in order to seal a potential Israeli air corridor to Iran's northern nuclear installations over the Caucasus and Caspian Sea.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did in fact call the White House and asked for clarifications on the intelligence he had received that Moscow had finally determined to get the Bushehr plant finished after endless delays. He was told that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had assured Washington they would keep their promises to President Barak Obama not to activate the Bushehr reactor this year.
Those promises went by the board ten days later with Moscow's public announcement of the August 21 date for its activation.
By then, Israel's leaders – though not its intelligence chiefs – appeared to be too deeply mired in the scandals surrounding the IDF generals' battle for the post of next chief of staff to take much notice of the Russian moves. (See a separate item in this issue on the imploding Netanyahu government.)
Moscow goes back to justifying Tehran's nuclear ambitions
Seeing neither Washington nor Jerusalem connecting the dots or reacting to Moscow's two interconnected steps – even Medvedev's Abkhazia visit for a last check on the military set-up there ahead of the Bushehr inauguration went unnoticed – Putin gave the go-ahead for shipping the fuel to be loaded at the Bushehr reactor this coming Saturday.
Monday, Aug. 16, Moscow announced that Sergei Kirienko, a former Russian prime minister and current head of Rostom, the Russian state nuclear corporation, would arrive at Bushehr with Russian energy minister Sergei Shmatko on Friday, August 20, in time for the transport of Russian fuel to the Bushehr reactor the next day. The event is to be marked by a press conference held jointly by the head of the Iranian Nuclear Energy Committee Ali-Akhbar Salehi and his Russian guests.
Moscow also stressed its undertaking to supply the reactor with fuel for the next ten years – a warning to any would-be attackers that the Iranian project was now under Russian protection.
Russian and Iranian officials jointly emphasize the peaceful nature of the Bushehr reactor and underline its lack of military applications.
By these statements, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources note, Moscow has reverted to its former position that the West had never proved Iran's nuclear program was anything but peaceful and its military component was pure surmise.
Driving this point home, a Russian spokesman said: "A nuclear power plant just generates electricity. There are two dual-purpose elements – enrichment and spent fuel management. Both of these elements are taken out of Iran's responsibility, because we are going to supply the Bushehr power plant with nuclear fuel."
Tehran's unique nuclear logic
On the same Monday, the Iranian nuclear expert Mehdi Mohammadi placed his government's intentions, backed by Moscow, on the table when he said that, by enriching uranium at home, Iran would guarantee its access to fuel supplies from world markets.
"Experience has shown that if Iran fails to produce nuclear fuel inside its territory, international markets will not be open to it."
Even Russia's decision to ship fuel to Iran, he said, rests on its confidence that Iran is itself technically capable of producing fuel. He added, "We are confident that if enrichment in Iran comes to a standstill for whatever reason, the country's access to international markets will face serious problems. The Russians, who claim they are committed to supply fuel to the Bushehr reactor, will in the future refuse to do so or set illogical conditions."
Mohammadi brushed aside a diplomatic accommodation with the West when he maintained, "We realized that since we were incapable of enriching uranium to 20 percent level or did not want to do so at that time, the Western parties imagined that they could take advantage of the issue and make other requests such as the suspension of enrichment."
(Last year the Six-Power negotiations with Iran broke down over Tehran's refusal to send low-enriched uranium for reprocessing abroad.)
The Iranian expert concluded that the higher the enrichment level Iran is capable of attaining, the more nuclear cooperation it can expect from Russia and the other nuclear nations, like China and India.
Russia bids to supplant America in lead role on Iran
Putin's green light Monday for the final steps for bringing the Bushehr reactor on stream drew congratulations from Tehran – although they were typically grudging.
In fact, Salehi's remarked Tuesday, August 17, that while Iran is grateful to Russia for commissioning the Bushehr nuclear power plant, "the Russians, for their part, should thank us because the launching… provides them with a good opportunity to show the world their capabilities and even enhance them."
Moscow took these half-hearted congratulations in good spirit because the Iranian nuclear chief had a point – or, as DEBKA-Net-Weekly's analysts find, five net gains from its "favors" to Tehran:
1. By concluding its outstanding Bushehr business with Tehran, Moscow aims to ride into position for supplanting the Obama administration in its lead role on the Iranian nuclear issue. In the next round of talks between the P5+1 forum (US, Russia, the UK, France, China and Germany), Moscow will not sit alongside the United States but move to the Iranian side of the table, so weakening the US-led forum.
(The talks were supposed to resume next month but Wednesday, Aug. 18, spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stipulated that America must first lift sanctions.)
2. Moscow is rounding off the circle President Medvedev started drawing on July 12, when he advised a group of Russian diplomats to eschew "simplistic approaches" on the Iranian nuclear problem because, he explained, possession of nuclear weapons does not violate any international charters including the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which Tehran is a signatory; it only prohibits their distribution to other countries or parties.
Moscow's move was not challenged by Washington, which uttered no word of protest or applied any sort of pressure on the Kremlin to reconsider.
Russian S-300 interceptors defend Iran – from outside its borders
3. The Russian deployment of S-300 in Abkhazia told Washington that Moscow is keeping faith with the Medvedev-Putin commitment to Obama not to let Iran have this sophisticated anti-air missile. Instead, they are deployed in an outer protective ring around Iran against sites from which Moscow perceives US or Israel is preparing to strike the Islamic Republic.
Moscow suspected such preparations were afoot last month by Israel from US air bases in Romania and Bulgaria – hence the Abkhazia deployment.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly adds: This pattern was repeated in Azerbaijan, hitherto within the American and Israeli military and intelligence sphere of influence. In July, Rosobornexport, which handles Russian armament exports, quietly informed Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that S-300 missiles would be made available to his country.
This transaction, valued at around $300 million, is the costliest one-time weapons purchase by a former Soviet Republic. Even if Moscow tries to deny the sale, ruling and military circles in Baku are treating it as a done deal.
4. By commissioning the Bushehr reactor, Moscow seeks to undermine faith in the Persian Gulf region, especially in Saudi Arabia, in the Obama administration's promises not to let Iran acquire a nuclear bomb. Their trust that at the end of the day, Israel would take military action to abort a nuclear-armed Iran was also badly dented this week by Israel's failure to utter a word against Russia's launching of the plant.
5. The efforts Russia, along with China, India and Turkey, have invested in recent weeks to blunt the impact of US and European sanctions on Iran have made good headway.
Not only are the penalties failing to achieve the goal formulated by President Obama of halting the Iran's military nuclear program, but that program is steadily gaining momentum.