Putin won’t torpedo Iran talks, Israeli officials say

Putin won’t torpedo Iran talks, Israeli officials say

Despite threats that Moscow will stop cooperating to punish West, most experts say it has too much to lose from a nuclear Tehran

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani,  Friday, September 13, 2013 (photo credit: via YouTube)
Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, Friday, September 13, 2013 (photo credit: via YouTube)

Jerusalem has no reason to fear that Russia would allow Iran to advance its nuclear program to punish the West as ties increasingly sour over the annexation of Crimea, Israeli experts and officials said Thursday.

Despite posturing and threats by Moscow that it could change its stance in ongoing nuclear talks, Russia is opposed to Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon, officials asserted.

However, one Israeli official insisted that the crisis in Ukraine is likely to cause Russian President Vladimir Putin to act in ways that would negatively impact on Israel’s security, including obstructing the world powers’ nuclear talks with Iran and efforts to destroy Syria’s nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that his country might take “retaliatory measures” that could hurt attempts to persuade Tehran to reign in its nuclear ambitions. Russia is part of the P5+1 group, together with the United States, France, Britain, China and Germany, which is currently negotiating a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.

An Israeli official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he found it hard to believe that Putin would start confronting the P5+1 on the Iran issue. In the end, it will depend on how long the Crimean crisis lasts, and “how nasty it gets,” the official said. “From what we can see from the latest round of [nuclear] talks [that concluded this week] in Vienna, the Russians are not in a hurry to make this a battle across the board. The issue will be not immune from tensions and problems, but the tendency will be to isolate the issue and see the Ukrainian crisis within its proper context.”

According to Brenda Shaffer, a Haifa University expert on energy and politics, Moscow will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, simply because that would hurt its own interests. “One key factor is that Iran has the second biggest gas volume in the world and could thus threaten Russia’s dominance on the European gas market,” she said.

The Russians prefer a status quo of perpetual conflict between the West and Iran, Shaffer said. Letting Tehran get its hands on a nuclear weapon, or leaving it with robust enough nuclear capabilities, would invite an Israeli or an American military attack on Iran, which Moscow sees as a threat to its current grip on the European energy market, she suggested.

“It makes sense to assume that, regardless of the Crimea crisis, Russia would try to be spoiler if a comprehensive [nuclear] agreement were on the table. They will try everything to prevent the West’s realignment with Iran, because they fear for their own dominance on the gas market,” she surmised.

Preventing Iran’s nuclear armament is also in Moscow’s interest from a wider geopolitical perspective, said Jonathan Dekel-Chen, a senior lecturer in Russian Studies at Hebrew University.

“A nuclear Iran is at least as dangerous to Russian national interests as to the national interests of any Western country,” he said.

The Russian Federation is a multiethnic country that includes many Muslim minorities. It borders on many Muslim countries, some of which are home to fundamentalist groups. “The last thing Moscow wants is to have a nuclear Iran exporting Islamic radicalism into Russia,” Dekel-Chen said. Iranian-Russian ties are complex for many reasons, but “the specter of a nuclear Iran would further complicate things.”

Russian threats to use the Iran talks as a leverage to force the West to ease Crimea-related pressure should not be seen as a signal that Iran is ready to let Tehran get away with advancing its nuclear pursuits, Dekel-Chen suggested.

“There’s difference between a Russian Foreign Ministry official, or even the president, engaging in international diplomacy, trying to make life very difficult [for the West], and seeing Iran go nuclear.”

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment for this article. One government official said that Israel has always been skeptical of the P5+1’s approach to Iran’s nuclear program, suggesting that Jerusalem does not place great hopes in the group’s current efforts.

Another Israeli official told The Times of Israel that he was not convinced by arguments based on Moscow’s interests, indicating that Jerusalem is worried that Putin might indeed sabotage Western efforts to stem the Iranian threat.

“The Russian are playing according to their own logic, and it’s difficult to know at times what it is,” said the official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of Israeli-Russian relations. “Russian interest is whatever the Russians define as their interest, not what we think is their interest.” Jerusalem would-be well-advised to consider the P5+1 efforts to stop Iran “possible collateral damage,” he said.

While the current standoff between the West and Russia over the latter’s invasion and subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula had nothing to do with Israel, the conflict might come back to haunt Jerusalem, the official warned. “Tensions between the West and Russia could affect our interest in Syria and Iran. Obviously Russian cooperation is essential on these issues, and if they withdraw their cooperation — that’s not good. Even though this conflict has no ties whatsoever to Israel, it will indirectly affect us.”

Ryabkov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, said this week that Moscow considers “reunification” with Crimea more important than the developments surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.

“We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington,” Ryabkov said. “But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well.”

AP contributed to this report.

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