Barring a last minute hitch, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is expected visit Tehran next week for what may prove to be the last major diplomatic mission of his presidency.
For more than a quarter of a century, the Islamic Republic leadership in Tehran has did all it could to host such a visit with no success. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin politely turned down invitations from the Iranian mullahs. Up to now, Putin had pursued a similar policy. During the last summit of the so-called Shanghai Group, Putin turned down President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s demand for a tête-à-tête.
So, why has Putin decided to visit Tehran at this time?
Part of the answer may lie in Russia’s growing concern that Ahmadinejad’s defiance of the United Nations may provoke a regional war. Putin hopes that he may be able to persuade the Khomeinist leadership to step back from the brink. Success in Tehran could look like the final bouquet in Putin’s eight years of fireworks as Russia’s President. It would further boost chances of Putin’s party, just weeks before the Russian general election, after which he plans to seek the premiership.
Under the Russian Constitution, Putin cannot stand for a third consecutive term as president. His strategy is to help an acolyte to become president while he himself becomes prime minister. The acolyte could then resign as president, say after six months, allowing Putin to seek the presidency for the third time.
A diplomatic coup in Tehran could restore part of Russia’s prestige in the Middle East. “Russia the peacemaker” as opposed to “America the warmonger” would resonate well with many constituencies in the region, in Europe and even in the United States.
Suddenly, Putin and Russia could find themselves back in the big league.
Although domestic political calculations may have played a role in Putin’s decision to go to Tehran, it would be wrong to regard them as the only reasons for what is a potentially serious diplomatic move. And, if our sources are right, Putin’s decision was taken in consultation with the three major powers of the European Union, that is to say Germany, Britain and France. In fact, France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy held a summit with Putin only days before the latter’s project Iranian odyssey. French sources tell us that Sarkozy was “very encouraged” by Putin’s readiness to move closer to EU positions on Iran.
What should Putin tell the Khomeinist leaders in Tehran?
He should first disabuse them of the illusion that they could do as they please because the United States, the only power prepared to use force against them, might be too bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Putin should draw the attention of the Khomeinist leaders to the fact that the two UN Security Council resolutions passed with regard to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities cannot be ignored forever. These resolutions can be cancelled only with another Security Council resolution stating that the matter is resolved. The issue cannot be fudged.
The key demand of the Security Council from the Islamic Republic is to stop its uranium enrichment programme as a precondition for negotiations aimed at finding a comprehensive accord.
Logically, this should not be difficult for Iran to do.
Iran does not have any nuclear power plants and thus does not need any enriched uranium for use as fuel. The only Iranian nuclear power plant under construction is being built by the Russians who have decided to postpone its completion until the dispute with the UN is resolved. In any case, Russia is prepared to provide the said plant with all the fuel it needs for the duration of its entire life span of 37 years.
Some Western experts suspect that the Khomeinist leaders seek enriched uranium because they want to build nuclear weapons. While this may be true, there may be another factor involved. President Ahmadinejad has repeatedly declared that his administration will not agree to scarp the enrichment programme under any circumstances. “This is a red line we shall not cross,” he insists.
In fact, agreeing to stop, or even suspend the enrichment programme, could amount to political suicide for Ahmadinejad just as his coalition of hardliners prepares for a tough general election next March. Setback in the March elections could destroy Ahmadinejad’s hopes for re-election in 2009.
Thus, Putin’s diplomatic triumph may depend on Ahmadinejad’s humiliation. At the same time, if Putin returns to Moscow empty-handed he might look somewhat diminished, to say the least.
Can a way be found out of what looks like a quintessential diplomatic zugzwang?
I think it can.
In Tehran, Putin should insist on negotiating directly with the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi. Some experts believe that Khamenehi, who is certainly no Khomeini, has become a prisoner of younger and more radical revolutionaries centred on the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and can no longer set the tune as he pleases. However, while the IRGC’s ascendancy is a fact that cannot be denied, I believe that Khamenehi still has enough power to tilt the scales in favour of one policy or another.
A compromise endorsed by Khamenehi would cover Ahmadinejad and his hard line cohorts, making an eventual agreement that much easier to achieve.
The crisis provoked by Ahmadinejad’s decision to resume uranium enrichment, something that his predecessors Muhammad Khatami, a mid-ranking mullah, had stopped, cannot be resolved with a single diplomatic arabesque. Putin’s visit, however, could mark the start of a choreography that, given time and patience, might work.
The compromise that Putin might offer would include several key elements.
The most important is Tehran’s agreement to suspend enrichment for a fixed period during which talks are held with the UN on an eventual accord that on the cancellation of the two resolutions and a timetable for the lifting of the sanctions already imposed.
To sweeten Tehran, Moscow could set-up a joint uranium enrichment programme under which Iranian scientists will work along their Russian counterparts in both Iran and Russia, under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Such a measure would meet Tehran’s desire to develop a domestic scientific and technical nuclear capacity based on using Iran’s own uranium resources. (These are estimated to be enough for seven years of fuel for the power plant being built on the Iranian coast of the Gulf by the Russians.)
The crisis provoked by Tehran’s nuclear ambitions can still be resolved. Putin’s visit may represent the final opportunity for doing so in a way that meets the concerns of the international community while the Khomeinist leadership does not lose face.
To be sure, the problem that many countries, notably the major Western powers, have with the Khomeinist regime in Tehran is not limited to concerns about its nuclear ambitions. However, right now the nuclear issue is pushing Iran to the brink of war. By undertaking a high-risk mission, Putin, often castigated by his political foes as opportunist, is showing a degree of moral courage that merits being noted.
His success could defuse the situation, at least for the time being. His failure would confirm the view of those who believe that the Khomeinist regime will not back out of any of its key positions unless it is forced to do so.