Is Russia trying to stabilize the Israeli-Iranian security dilemma?
At the beginning of a week that will end with Mohamed ElBaradei's report on Iran to the United Nations Security Council, Russia, which has done more than any foreign power to build Iran's nuclear power capability, hired out its launch capability to Iran's now and forever enemy, Israel:
Russia on Tuesday launched a satellite for Israel that the Israelis say will be used to spy on Iran's nuclear program.
The Eros B satellite was launched from a mobile pad at the Svobodny cosmodrome in the Far East, said Alexei Kuznetsov, a spokesman for the Russian military space forces.
About 20 minutes later, the satellite successfully reached orbit, Russian news agencies reported, citing the space forces' news service.
"The Israeli satellite reached its target orbit and has been transferred to the client's control," Kuznetsov was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Israel's Channel 10 TV reported that the launch was successful, but the satellite would not deploy its power panels for another day and a half.
The satellite is designed to spot images on the ground as small as 27 1/2 inches, an Israeli defense official said. That level of resolution would allow Israel to gather information on Iran's nuclear program and its long-range missiles, which are capable of striking Israel, he said.
The wire service story does not miss the point that Russia is playing both sides, or at least making money from them:
Russia, which has developed ties with Israel since the collapse of the Soviet Union, is also a major commercial partner of Tehran and is building an $800 million nuclear power station in Bushehr, southern Iran.
But it insists that the transfer of nuclear technology to Iran will not endanger the non-proliferation regime and has rejected U.S. calls to abandon the project as well as halt military sales to Tehran. The Russian defense minister confirmed Monday that Moscow will go ahead and supply Iran with sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles.
Today, the day before ElBaradei's report, we have a spate of stories that focus on Russia and Iran. The A.P.'s Steve Gutterman calls Russia's relations with Iran a "delicate balancing act."
As President Vladimir Putin positions Russia as a global power broker, he must maneuver between the nation's interests in Iran and the need to maintain a measure of cooperation with the West.
Exactly a year ago, Putin strongly urged Iran to abandon the pursuit of uranium enrichment — but Tehran has done the opposite, scrapping a moratorium, stepping up enrichment efforts and playing an on-again-off-again game with a Russian proposal to ease the crisis.
The mounting international pressure on Iran, set to tighten with a crucial U.N. nuclear agency report Friday, also deepens the dilemma faced by Moscow.
Russia has increasingly shared U.S. worries that Iran could produce nuclear weapons and has taken some steps to counter the threat — notably by insisting that spent fuel from the atomic power plant it is building for Iran in the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr be returned to Russia.
But with Iran's rejection of a U.N. Security Council demand that it suspend enrichment by Friday a foregone conclusion, the report from the International Atomic Energy Agency risks setting Russia apart from three other veto-wielding council members — the United States, Britain and France — on the need for sanctions against Tehran.
Moscow's opposition to sanctions stems from several sources rooted in a complex web of business, political and security concerns.
The Gutterman article is a good newspaperish overview of Russia's diplomatic dilemma, but if you don't read the whole thing at least consider this:
Falling afoul of Iran could also expose Russia to further trouble in its North Caucasus region, jeopardizing Tehran's position that the Chechnya conflict is an internal matter for Russia and prompting it to support Islamic militant infiltration into the area, said Vladimir Dvorkin, a Russian analyst and arms control expert.
Few TigerHawk (or Belmont Club) readers will need the friendly reminder that the "Islamic militant infiltration" into Chechnya is al Qaeda. American hawks apparently aren't quite the only people in the world who believe that Iran's mullahs would cooperate with Sunni jihadists.
Finally, there are two other stories today that emphasize Russia's commercial ties with Iran. The first, from the Financial Times, reports that Russia and China "warn the UN not to antagonise Iran." This article is interesting not only for its central point but also because it contains a clear statement from Philip Zelikow, Counselor of the Department of State (a senior policy position reporting to Condoleezza Rice), that “Forcible change of the Iranian regime is not the objective of American policy.” Bold emphasis supplied. (But, see the claim to the contrary of Clinton administration advisors Richard Clarke and Steven Simon.)
The other story that focuses on Russia's commercial interests describes an American proposal to, in effect, outbid Iran for Russia's support. The United States has offered Russia a nuclear cooperation deal, apparently in an attempt to tilt it back to the Western side should ElBaradei present evidence that Iran has not complied with the Security Council's demands.
It has been a busy week, and things will heat up tomorrow when ElBaradei reports his findings.
Commentary, and more than a little speculation
Let's center ourselves. The week that will end with ElBaradei's potentially disturbing report began with Russia launching an Israeli spy satellite into
geosynchronous orbit [UPDATE: Thanks to various smart commentors for this correction.] over Iran and simultaneously declaring that it would sell sophisticated air defense equipment to Iran. In one version of this story, Russia is the ultimate Lord of War, selling Israel the ability to define its target set, and Iran the means to defend itself from an Israeli air raid. The American proposal to enter into a nuclear cooperation program with Russia has any number of objectives, but one of them is clearly to make American business at least as attractive to Russia as Iranian business.
In another version, though, Russia's transactions are arguably stabilizing, and entirely consistent with its geopolitical interests above and beyond their mercantile value.
Russia's non-commercial interests in Iran include, at a minimum, (1) the aforementioned desire to keep Iran from teaming up with the Islamists in its southern provinces, (2) preventing Iran from reverting to a pro-U.S. policy (which, everybody believes, would require "regime change" of the sort that the United States says it will not seek by "force"), and (3) the maintenance of a sufficiently strong government in Tehran that Russia can influence Iran by negotiation, rather than via direct intervention.
In effect, Russia wants an independent Iran with a reasonably strong central government that is not specifically hostile to Russian interests or supportive of separatists within Russia's borders. If that government is specifically hostile to American interests, all the better. Russia does not want to be walled in by American clients from the Balkans to the border with China. If you look at the map, though, Iran is the only meaningful country in that arc that isn't friendly with the United States to the point of hosting our armed forces. From Moscow, it certainly appears as though Russia has a lot more at stake than a few hundred million dollars worth of Iranian business.
From one perspective, the destabilizing "ticking-clock" security dilemma posed by Iran's gestating nuclear weapons program and Israel's status as a "one bomb" target creates the most pressing threat to Russia's interests. Israel and the West really do not know how long it will be before Iran has an operational nuclear capability, but they do know that when it does the risk to Israel and the United States goes up enormously. Iran understands this, so it is combining hostile bluffing to buy time with a mad scramble to shorten the project schedule, both of which only feed Israeli and Western anxiety and intensify the debate over the propriety and utility of punitive measures. The apparently closing window of opportunity to destroy Iran's nuclear capability is setting up a confrontation among Israel, a subset of the West, and Iran that cannot end well for Russia given its interests in the region.
Against this backdrop, it is possible to argue with a straight face that Russia's actions are not purely mercantilist, but also stabilizing. Israel gets its eye in the sky, able to see objects less than three feet across, delivered by Russians who (speculation alert) might even tell Israel where to point it to maximize Tel Aviv's knowledge. In theory, this diminishes Israel's uncertainty about (and perhaps its anxiety over) Iran's nuclear program, and gives it almost real time targeting information in the event that it decides a strike is necessary. In theory, this should extend the period of the "open window" during which Israel has to act (a period that has already once been extended, if last December's report of an attack by March 28 had any credence at all). Meanwhile, Russia's public agreement to supply Iran with advanced anti-aircraft capabilities should lower that country's concern that Israel can penetrate its air defenses. That, in turn, should salve the itchiness of the button fingers in Tehran, even if it doesn't slow down the Iranian weapons development program.
One can imagine Russia balancing through more than one layer of duplicity. The Bear knows that its promised delivery of advanced Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran creates a mini-window that is itself destabilizing: Israel might calculate that it will soon lose its last opportunity to attack Iran's nuclear facilities unmolested. Russia could defuse that risk by withholding from Iran its most advanced features, selling the mullahs, essentially, a degraded system. (Russia has apparently made something of a practice of this. See Cordesman and Al-Rodhan, p. 35) If Russia were going to do that anyway, it might inform Israel in advance and thereby close the mini-window.
Alternatively, Israel may view the deployment of Tor-M1s as immaterial, or even to its advantage. Cordesman and Al-Rodhan are not too worried about the Tor, or imply that their deployment might confer valuable targeting information:
Delivery dates ranging from 2006-2009 have been reported, but the Tor is too range-limited to have a major impact on US stealth attack capability, although its real-world performance against cruise missiles still has to be determined. It might have more point defense lethality against regular Israeli and US strike fighters like the F-15 and F-16 using precision guided-bombs, but would only be lethal against such aircraft with stand-off air-to-surface missiles if it could be deployed in the flight path in ways that were not detected before the attack profile was determined. (emphasis added)
In which case, the Tor's highest use might be as a decoy.
Unleash the hounds in the comments.
[Cross-posted at TigerHawk, my usual digs.]