President George W. Bush, anxious to correct the sour note that has crept into his exchanges with Russian president Vladimir Putin – especially on Iraq – asked two friendly prime ministers to intercede on his behalf in Moscow. Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, two weeks ago, followed this week by British prime minister Tony Blair, came away empty-handed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and Jerusalem report that the two were given different missions. Blair tried to persuade Putin to endorse a UN Security Council resolution that would empower Bush to go to war against Iraq if the Saddam government failed to disarm. Sharon’s task was to talk the Russian leader round to halting the transfer of sophisticated nuclear and missile technologies to Iran. The transfers if they continue at their present rate will transform Iran into a nuclear power in three years.
Our sources say that Putin told Blair that his opposition to the American offensive on Iraq – and most of all to regime change in Baghdad – was final and irrevocable. He handed Sharon the same assurances given routinely to American and Israeli emissaries since 1996, that Moscow will stop short of letting Iran use Russian technology to develop nuclear weapons.
When Sharon refuted this argument with the help of particulars of the latest Russian-Iranian transactions, Putin retorted that America and Israel would not be allowed to interfere in Moscow’s relations with Tehran.
This animosity between Moscow and Washington is a far cry from the friendship hailed by Bush at the beginning of this year as immutable, firmly based on personal trust and destined to endure as long as the two presidents held office. This deeply personal understanding came to be accepted in the course of this year as a permanent feature of international diplomacy. Even the European Union became inured to the Washington-Moscow axis making the rules in Central Asia, especially in the energy field, Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent.
The abrupt shift from amity to acrimony has scarcely registered as yet. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Moscow report that for years no one had heard so much tension and anger as came from Putin in his conversations with Blair and Sharon in the past two weeks. The tone was clearly meant for the ears of George Bush.
Our sources in the Gulf indicate the rationale behind Putin’s U-turn:
Russians interests in the region are advancing apace in two directions:
One, a strenuous effort by Moscow to help Saddam Hussein boost production from his oil wells in order to raise more cash. Some of the extra Iraqi revenue is flowing directly to Russian oil firms and weapons manufacturers.
Notwithstanding Putin’s flat denials to the British prime minister, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Gulf sources reveal that Russian is pumping into Iraq some of the military equipment Saddam needs to stand up to an American assault. The supplies are going through Russian straw companies fronted by Hungarian, German, Czech, Ukrainian, Croatian and Belarusian firms. Some 3,000 Russian experts and technicians are now operating in Iraq, attached to military units or civilian bodies serving the armed forces.
In the estimate of American intelligence experts, Moscow’s earnings from its deals with Baghdad may soar to two to three billion dollars by the end of 2002.
The Kremlin will not pull its technicians out of Iraq as it did in Gulf War One in 1991. They will be told to stay on until the outcome of the war is known. Putin appears to believe that the presence of Russian personnel will act as insurance for Russian post-war interests in Iraq and for the implementation of the huge contracts the Saddam regime signed with Moscow for the joint development of Iraqi oil fields.
Two, from mid-September, the Kremlin lifted every last restriction on the quality and quantity of the equipment and military technology it is selling Iran, including nuclear and missile know-how. This is agreed by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s American and Israeli intelligence sources.
The Russian deals with Iran were high on the agenda of the talks Bush and Sharon held in the White House on Wednesday, October 17.
The US president interprets Putin’s conduct as arising from Russian hopes of cashing in on Iran’s massive withdrawals of money and gold from American and European banks, in advance of the Iraq war. In the last few weeks, Iran has removed some 3 to 3.5 billion dollars of deposits from banks in New York, London and Frankfurt. Bush believes Putin is counting on siphoning off some of this money by selling the Iranians more of the technologies they want.
Sharon, however, sees in the Russian president’s tactics far-reaching strategic objectives that the Americans would do well to keep in mind. If the flow of Russian technology to Iran continues at its present pace, Iran will soon be in possession of the biggest missile arsenal in southwest Asia, standing level with India and Pakistan. Putin’s purpose in this buildup of Iran is to create a counterweight to the post-war American military presence in Iraq as well as offsetting the US footprint in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea basin.