US diplomats were astonished to hear a new tune from their Russian interlocutors when they met privately in advance of the world power negotiations with Iran which opened in Geneva Monday, Dec. 6.
For five years, Moscow had persisted in denying there was any proof that Iran was running a secret military nuclear program or that the ayatollahs were surreptitiously building the infrastructure for the manufacture of nuclear bombs and warheads. The Kremlin always insisted Iran lacked long-range ballistic missiles and had no plans for producing any projectiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
Even in July, when they were persuaded by the US to vote for international sanctions, it was only for the sake of a quid pro quo. Moscow extracted from Washington an undertaking not to interfere with the inauguration on Aug. 28 of the nuclear reactor Russia had installed at Bushehr in southern Iran as well as a guarantee to prevent any interference by Israel. The Obama administration was required further to obtain a direct commitment from Israel guaranteeing the reactor immunity from attack.
Moscow's reward for this self-restraint was a pledge to hold back S-300 missile interceptors from Tehran and Damascus, notwithstanding a signed contract for its supply to guard Iran's nuclear sites from missile or air attack.
Even when the horse-trading was at its most intense, the Russians refused to credit the mounting layers of intelligence in American and Israeli hands attesting to Iran's burgeoning arms and missile programs.
Moscow scorns Iran's missiles as outdated
But then, in early November, the Russians suddenly changed their tune. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive Washington and Moscow sources report that a surprising new message came through their diplomatic channels, notably in Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's off-the-record video conferences with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Russians were now saying that they had come to the conclusion that nothing could stop a big country like Iran – with a population of 70 million and rich oil and gas resources and the high technological ability to run nuclear reactors, uranium enrichment processing and produce nuclear fuel rods – from acquiring a nuclear bomb. Once it had decided on this course, it was bound to succeed.
This surprise flip flop finally brought Moscow around to the conclusion, reached long ago by Washington, Paris, Berlin and Jerusalem, that Iran was well on the way to its goal of a nuclear weapon or warhead.
Our military sources add that, even so, Moscow still refuses to believe Iran is capable of producing a ballistic missile sophisticated enough to carry a nuclear warhead. Its experts insist that Iranian missile production has never managed to get past Scud technology, a reference to the World War II Russian surface missile of that name.
Trust us, say the Russians to the Americans: We designed the Scuds and we spent decades upgrading them before moving on to more advanced weaponry. So no one can pick up faster on the weaknesses betrayed by a military machine which is not up to mastering any missile technology beyond the outdated Scuds.
The Russian experts recently confirmed this diagnosis with the discovery that the missiles Iran used to boost its first miniature spacecraft Safir (Messenger) 1 and 2 and Kavoshgar (Explorer) 1 in 2008 and 2009, consisted of three stages, the first two of which were old Scuds.
Let's go all the way with a sea and air blockade
Having changed its mind about Iran's nuclear motives, the Kremlin was suddenly ready to turn the screw in earnest when it became clear that UN, US and European sanctions lacked the punch for curbing Iran's drive for a bomb. According to our sources, the Russians offered to work with the Americans on a penalty painful and costly enough to daunt Iran from going all the way to a bomb. The Iranians must be convinced, they explained, that their potential strategic benefit from joining the world's nuclear club was not worth having their economy go into meltdown.
At first, Russian diplomats refused to explain what they were talking about. In the third week of November, they unveiled a plan which consisted very simply and brutally of an international naval and air blockade against Iran to choke off its oil and gas exports to world markets. The plan's success depended on three key steps:
The blockade must be watertight and impossible for Iran's friends, including China, Venezuela, Syria and Turkey, to breach.
Washington and Moscow must cooperate in steps to avert a global energy crisis.
The two powers must guarantee a steady fuel supply to countries dependent on Iranian oil like Japan and major importers like China in case of shortages on the international market.
The Americans could hardly believe their ears when they heard this proposal. The Russians had fought tooth and nail against any proposed embargo – even a partial one – on selling Iran oil products and especially refined oil. They had also been up in arms against any damage to Iran's energy industry, financially or otherwise. Now, all of the sudden, Moscow was proposing the ultimate punishment, more radical than any US President Barack Obama had ever contemplated.
Washington probes Moscow's ulterior motives
After Moscow's cat was out of the bag, the White House put a team to work on the motives underlying the Kremlin's radical change of face. It was instructed to explore three alternative hypotheses:
One, the Kremlin had truly come to believe in Iran's drive for a nuclear bomb and felt compelled to protect its military and energy interests by cutting down the potential threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Russia and the Central Asian nations which Moscow regards as it strategic hinterland.
Two, The rise of Chinese influence and its expanded investments in Iran's energy industry are the cause of deep concern to the Russians and they will go a long way to thwart it.
Three, Iran is only second to Russia as the world's top holder of gas reserves (971 trillion cubic feet -Tcf compared with Russia's 1,680 Tcf). Moscow may suspect the Obama administration of opting for diplomacy – not just to curb Iran's nuclear aspirations but as the long way round toward hauling US-Iranian relations back to level they attained between the 1950s and mid-1970s, when American influence reigned supreme in Tehran. The Russians fear America also aims at eventually challenging Russia's primacy as the sole natural gas supplier for Central and West Europe by supporting the projected Nabucco gas pipeline from Erzurum in Turkey to Baumgarten an der March in Austria and so diversifying gas suppliers and delivery routes to Europe.
Tehran is onto Russia's new stance
Iranian intelligence proved itself on the mark in the way Tehran responded to the first round of its resumed negotiations with six world powers ((US, Russia, UK, France, China and Germany) which ended in Geneva on Tuesday, Dec. 7. It came typically in the form of an ultimatum for round two to proceed, spelled out by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: "If you come to the negotiations by cancelling all the nasty things and wrong decisions you have adopted – lift resolutions, sanctions and some other restrictions that you have created, then the talks will definitely be fruitful."
Moscow sensed in this warning a challenge: For the negotiations to continue, the Russian blockade proposal ("other restrictions") must be scrapped along with sanctions. The Russians got their first taste of the tough bargaining tactics Tehran routinely employs against the United States.
Before going forward, the Obama administration must determine which of the three hypotheses about the motives behind Moscow's volte face is the correct one – genuine concern about a nuclear-armed Iran or a tactical move to preserve its oil and gas empire.