A recent almost-entirely buried story found in Russia's Regions news service detailed an accident on the road between Moscow and Obninsk that injured eight Iranian citizens. Five were critically hurt and brought to a hospital, while the others were treated on the scene in the village of Seliatino.
After this initial report any information about the Iranians and their business in Russia quickly dried up. Of course, it is possible they were simply roaming the countryside hawking Persian rugs or some other handicraft. The Iranians destination, however, makes that explanation seem exceedingly unlikely.
Obninsk -- a former "closed city" under communist rule -- is one of Russia's major nuclear research and training centers, and an area where the United States' scandalously mismanaged Cooperative Threat Reduction program is active. It was home to one of the Soviet Union's first nuclear reactors and continues to be a well-known center for the study of nuclear physics. It's a subject Iran has taken a keen interest in of late.
This little-reported incident is a useful reminder that even in the midst of the jubilation over Iraqi elections the specter of something darker hangs on the horizon. Despite the vociferous protests of the Bush administration, Russia has ratcheted up its efforts to make a nuclear Iran a reality in the near term.
Last week, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak visited Teheran, meeting with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Gulam Hoshru and several other high-level Iranians.
According to Russia's official news agency, the meeting was in large part to determine the "peaceful nature" of Iran's nuclear program, a diplomatic language hurdle to Russia helping the Islamic nation finally bring the Russian-built plant at Bushehr online. Aaron Klein of World Net Daily reports sources have told him that Russia has "installed a mobile radar system to protect Iran's Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor, and similar systems allegedly are in the works for other Iranian nuclear facilities, including a facility in central Iran." It's called protecting your investment.
In two weeks, Russia's atomic energy chief Aleksandr Rumyantsev will visit Iran to make final arrangements on the contentious issue of where the spent fuel rods will be sent. The finality of all these meetings suggests imminent movement on the nuclear issue. A feeling of covering the bases pervades press reports coming out of Russia.
In fact, this is already seen as such an eventuality in Iran, which is looking toward the future and promising to become a major supplier of nuclear fuel to the world.
"With diminishing exports of oil, Iran has to be a supplier," Sirus Naseri, a senior Iranian delegate to the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told Reuters. "Iran is used to being a net supplier of energy rather than a sole receiver…We are definitely going to be a player."
Further, railway ministers from Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan will soon meet to finalize an accord to join the nations' railways, to add, in the words of Iran's Ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Shafei, "to the economic growth of Iran, Russia and Azerbaijan." Shortly thereafter, the head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Yevgeny Primakov, will make his way to Tehren.
In light of all of this, the United States should watch Russia closely as it pursues ever cozier ties with Iran, a state sponsor of terrorism and declared enemy of the United States. Allowing Russia to take the lead on the nuclear issue in Iran would be disastrous and as foolhardy as the leeway the U.S. gave it for moralizing over Iraq.
Worst of all, it's not only Iran Russia is getting into bed with. Israeli intelligence recently warned that Russia has plans to sell Syria SA-18 Igla shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and other advanced weaponry. Russia quickly denied the charge, but nonetheless recently held very friendly meetings with Syrian president Bashar Assad, during which Russia surprised many by writing off almost $10 billion in Syrian debt.
These may be strategic moves on Russia's part. Both Russia and China understand that once the Middle Eastern threats have been dealt with, the time will come for America once again to address the strategic threats arising from emerging superpowers. China hopes to counter by making it economically impossible for America to confront them. Perhaps Russia is just hoping to keep the U.S. occupied with well-armed fundamentalist Islamic regimes. For all its talk of Chechnya being part and parcel of the War on Terror, its actions belie a different philosophy: Use the vocabulary of the War on Terror to run its own war however it wishes, but not really show much of an interest in the overall fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Per usual, for the Russians it's win/win.
Later this month George W. Bush will have another opportunity to peer into Vladimir Putin's soul. But one suspects he's already stopped taking it for granted that Putin's Russia has our best interests at heart.
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