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Mr Putin goes to Tehran

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Robin Lustig | 18:23 UK time, Tuesday, 16 October 2007

So what do we think President Putin is up to? Is he merely cocking a snook at Washington, is his visit simply a way of saying, in effect: "If Iran is your enemy, OK, it's our friend"?

I think it's a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, I don't believe the Kremlin is happy with the idea of a nuclear-capable Islamic republic on its doorstep. For another, Moscow, for all its grand-standing, has in fact been rather subtle, diplomacy-wise, when it comes to UN negotiations over sanctions against Tehran.

And what about the Iranians? Well, on Newshour today, our man in Tehran, Jon Leyne, told me that the Iranians don't trust Mr Putin one little bit. His way of looking at the world is not theirs, and they're perfectly well aware that Moscow could well be using them as a pawn in its game against Washington.

Both the Russians and the Iranians like to think of themselves as regional super-powers. (In Moscow's case, of course, they like to think of themselves as a global super-power as well.) There's as much potential for competition as for cooperation between them -- and I suspect we're going to need to keep a close eye on both capitals as they seek to strengthen their regional alliances.

But if you're in Moscow, Tehran or Washington, I'd be interested to know how it looks to you.


  1. At 10:29 PM on 16 Oct 2007, Mark wrote:

    Two chess players comparing strategies. The situation is touchy. Putin is by far the more experienced. He knows that in America, Iran faces an adversary that has enormous material strengths but often doesn't have the will to use it, at least not to its full advantage. (How Putin must fantasize what he would do with anything comparable.) He's rightfully cautious because he knows when this adversary does attack, it is usually devastating especially when it plays for keeps as in the initial attack on Iraq. Iran is relatively far weaker than Ahmadinejad knows and he’s grossly overconfident. The photograph itself is interesting. Putin is pointing his right index finger at Ahmadinejad’s face. It’s a sign of an admonition or a warning. His hand is fairly low and his arm is not extended so it was one delivered softly but his message was clear. Does pointing a finger at someone have any special significance in the Islamic culture the way showing the soles of your shoes to someone does among Arabs? Ahmadinejad is grinning but it isn't clear if it is one of “happy to see ya Vlad” or if he is glowering, seething inside with anger at what he’s being told. And what is the warning? It's Putin's fear that the America will attack Iran, that's his message, one Iran seems to have foolishly dismissed.


    Putin wants to be seen as a major player on the world stage but his efforts to defuse the tensions between Iran and Washington over its nuclear program failed. It’s a program Russia plays a part in. He only tried after Britain, France, and Germany failed in over two years of negotiations but the current state of affairs hasn't left Putin a happy man. Iran is his client state and he surely remembers the days of the Shah when America had its listening posts right on the USSR's borders there. It’s something he doesn’t want to see again. Even with his new found Gazprom money, Putin has plenty of other problems both domestic and international to occupy him.

    Putin realizes what Ahmadinejad doesn't, that there are many unknowns, surprise dangers lurking which cannot be taken into his calculations. One is a real question of whether or not America's arsenal, especially its nuclear arsenal is fully under civilian control. Every student of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 knows that at one point Kennedy cabled Khrushchev that he didn't know how much longer he could restrain his generals. When faced with an unacceptable threat to its national security, in this case Iran with the imminent prospect of having an atom bomb, there is no telling what America will do. One thing likely, an American military response when it does come will arrive by air probably like a bolt from the blue. There will be no stopping it. It could be so intense and well coordinated that the whole thing might be over in a matter of hours or just a few days. The Americans are quoted as having said they have no plans to attack Iran. That is not exactly true, not precisely what is meant. It means the US has no immediate intentions to attack Iran. It has plans to attack anything and everything that moves or doesn't move from Tiblisi Georgia to Atlanta Georgia, plans which in this case could become orders carried out within hours of a command. Ahmadinejad and his generals undoubtedly have plans to respond but should they attack American forces in Iraq or worst of all an American city, Washington DC or New York City for example, there’s a fair chance the US will respond with nuclear weapons. It’s no joke. For America, Iran seems a very real and dire threat, one it does not dismiss lightly.

    The other frightening unknown is Israel. Ehud Olmert has an approval rating of about minus one percent. Nobody is going to listen to him, he's a caretaker there to warm a seat until the real political battle for Israel gets underway. (What a farce the upcoming negotiations over a Palestinian state will be, a real dog and pony show.) Israel is believed to have the third largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the world, 400 or more, only smaller than that of the US and Russia. Many are believed to be fusion boosted, even full thermonuclear weapons. It’s not clear that Israel’s nuclear arsenal is completely under the control of this weak civilian government either, especially should Israel’s continued existence be in doubt. A preemptive attack on Iran could bring that country literally to its end and possibly a lot more. It's a terrifying prospect, one which would affect whomever and whatever is left. It’s not the actuality of Iran’s threat that matters, it’s how it is perceived that counts. This was the mistake Saddam Hussein made if he did not have WMDs, he felt the perception that he had them would act as a deterrent. Instead it precipitated the very war he wanted most to avoid. It cost him his country and his life. Ahmadinejad is doing everything possible to make his acquisition of nuclear weapons seem ominous and looming closer every day, the same fatal blunder Saddam Hussein made.

    One consolation for Putin, if Israel sets Iran's oil fields ablaze the way Saddam Hussein set Kuwait's ablaze, his own oil will be worth that much more....in whatever time we have left.

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