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Iranian roulette
Media General News Service


January 19, 2006

WASHINGTON - Finally, at long last, we are about to learn whether Russian President Vladimir Putin is just a hustler out for quick cash or a reliable partner for the democratic industrial world willing to take a courageous stand.

He told Germany's new chancellor, Angela Merkel, that he and the leaders of the United States and Europe hold "close positions" on the issue of Iran's dangerous new turn toward nuclear weapons. While warning against "abrupt, erroneous steps," he did not exclude the possibility of the U.N. Security Council taking up this issue.

That is the first substantial statement Putin has made on the subject of Iran's overbearing new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Russia is in a delicate position because of its longstanding partnership with Iran on nuclear development.

Nuclear power is a major industry for the Russians. Its technicians are all over Iran, helping to build a $1 billion nuclear power plant there.

Nevertheless, Moscow faces a huge test of world citizenship. Tehran has taken a radical turn not only toward Israel but toward the United States and Western civilization. It will be much more dangerous to confront this international menace without the Kremlin's help.

China, also a permanent member of the Security Council, has a veto pen, too. China needs Iran's oil to fuel the stupendous growth of its manufacturing industries.

The belief here is that China won't block the Security Council from acting on its own if Russia makes a courageous stand against Iran. It would be foolish for China to become a pariah among great powers at this stage in its economic development.

So, it is Putin who now holds the high cards in this game.

What he could be doing is stalling for more time. Merkel's tense visit last week seemed to produce some progress. But the Russians quickly splashed cold water on it when she was out of town.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov went back to a compromise offer for Iran to send uranium to Russia for enrichment. He wants to send Iran back to another endless round of talks with British, German and French negotiators on behalf of Europe.

The lead British negotiators said "nothing doing" to a new Russian-Iran track and more long-running nuclear Euro-chitchat.

Can the Europeans hang tough? Maybe. They have kept things right on track for a big showdown with the International Atomic Energy Agency in early February.

Germany is the key. But its economy is increasingly intertwined with Russia's, and it already gets a third of its natural gas from Russia, a percentage expected to rise sharply in the next decade.

Merkel is starting to look like a tougher customer than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, who got so cozy with Moscow that he took a job with a new Russian-German gas pipeline he helped start while in office.

Merkel grew up in East Germany, behind the Wall, and is fluent in Russian. Putin was a KGB officer who served in East Germany. Not a nice match.

Merkel cannot quite hide her frosty attitude toward Moscow. She has described the relationship not as friendship, as it was under Schroeder, but as a strategic partnership.

Whether Merkel would accept a Russian-Iran nuclear compromise remains to be seen. Trust of Russia is essential.

Moving Iran's uranium-enrichment program to Russia was at one time considered a compromise worth exploring. But that was before Ahmadinejad came on the scene with a series of shocking statements threatening Israel's existence and denying the Holocaust.

Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said his country could not allow any country making such hostile statements to have nuclear weapons. Some members of Congress have speculated that the Israelis would deal with it eventually, as they did in 1981 when their jets attacked an Iraqi light-water nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

Such a pre-emptive attack against Iran's nuclear facilities would have far greater consequences today. But the consequences of turning a blind eye to Iran's steady march toward the nuclear club are also enormous.


John Hall is the senior Washington correspondent of Media General News Service.
E-mail jhall(at)

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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