A report of an assassination plot against Vladimir Putin caused a slight delay in the Russian president’s departure for Tehran, which added a touch of melodrama to the occasion.
Putin’s objective appeared to be to deter a future U.S. bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. He warned the United States not to use a former Soviet republic to mount such an attack. Azerbaijan had been rumored as a staging base.
After his one-on-one with the much-reviled (in the West) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Putin chaired a summit of the presidents of the five Caspian Sea states -- Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. They all warned the United States not to attack Iran and agreed the Non-Proliferation Treaty is “one of the basic pillars of international security and stability.” This also gives them the right to pursue “research, production, and use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes” under the less-than-watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Russia also says it sees no evidence Iran is involved in a covert nuclear weapons program. Moscow had delayed the building of the Bushehr atomic power plant because Iran was behind in its payments. Word from Tehran was work would now resume on the $800 million reactor that employs 1,500, most of them Russian. Russia is also Iran’s seventh-largest trading partner.
Thus, the fiction was maintained that oil-rich Iran’s secret nuclear facilities are devoted solely to developing an alternative source of energy. Ahmadinejad said the summit was a “very strong” endorsement of Iran’s peaceful intentions. But Iran’s secret nuclear program began 23 years ago with the assistance of A.Q. Khan, a Pakistani national hero who is the father of his country’s nuclear arsenal -- and the world’s most notorious nuclear proliferator. Khan sold nuclear know-how to North Korea, Iran and Libya (that Col. Moammar Gadhafi subsequently turned over to British and U.S. intelligence that had been tracking a camouflaged shipment).
Russia has sold Iran about $1 billion worth of anti-aircraft missile batteries, and its military sales to the mullahs are expected to run at $1.5 billion a year for the next 10 years. China has inked a 10-year, $100 billion deal for Iranian oil. Germany remains lukewarm on a tougher sanctions regime as some 1,700 German companies still do good business in Iran. Which leaves the United States, France and Britain to squeeze Iran’s economy if the IAEA report, due to be delivered to the U.N. Security Council in November, does not clear Tehran of nuclear sleight-of-hand.
The Security Council has imposed two rounds of tepid sanctions, voted by Russia and the other big four -- the United States, Britain, France and China -- plus Germany. But the Tehran summit signaled Russia is now siding with Iran, along with Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua. Putin is flexing Russia’s muscles in some of the Soviet Union’s old haunts. Just before his departure for Tehran, he met with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his country dacha, but the atmosphere was borderline frosty. Russian journalists who know him say he’s delighted the United States is wallowing in Iraq and bogged down in Afghanistan.
For President Bush, the military option is still very much on the table. But following Putin’s summit in Tehran, any U.S. military action against Iran most probably would be greeted in the Kremlin by a revival of long dormant Cold War tensions.
Last August IAEA Director General Mohammed ElBaradei accepted, in effect, Iran’s terms for answering his agency’s questions about its nuclear activities. Ignored -- surrendered, say some experts -- was the IAEA’s obligatory mandate to conduct follow-up investigations and chase new leads. The critical question is why Iran has waited almost five years to provide answers to key questions and still declines to give unlimited access to IAEA inspectors. Why was it willing to have U.N. sanctions imposed, admittedly mild, rather than cough up what the IAEA had the right to know and do?
The bomb-Iran-now lobby received a new assist this week from one of its most vocal armchair strategists. Michael Ledeen’s new book, “The Iranian Time Bomb,” says the United States is faced with two terrible alternatives: either accommodate a nuclear Iran determined to create a global caliphate modeled “on the bloodthirsty regime in Tehran, or bomb Iran and deal with all the unpredictable consequences that entails.”
“There will never be adequate security in Iraq so long as Iran is in the grip of the theocratic fascist regime now in power,” Ledeen writes. “While it is understandable that policymakers do not want to face this mortal threat, there is no way out. The mullahs have proven they will attack us until they either win or lose.”
Ledeen undermines his own credibility when he says, “The relationship between Iran and al-Qaida over the years has been so close that it is difficult today not to conclude that Iran was involved in the 9/11 attacks.” This line was also used, by the same neocons, when they claimed an identical link between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. At one point, they even had 60 percent of Americans believing what 100,000 people in 16 U.S. intelligence agencies with a budget of $60 billion could not substantiate -- and for which there wasn’t one scintilla of evidence.