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Published: Sunday, 10/21/2007

U.S. takes a back seat to Iran on Russian friendship front

When choosing a friend at a Tehran summit last week, the Kremlin once again picked Iran over the United States.

Of course, such a pick means that the Kremlin's best friend remains itself.

The Kremlin appears to be protecting its interests in the Caspian Sea region against the possibility of a U.S. military action against Iran.

Speaking at a summit of the five nations bordering the Caspian Sea - Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan - Russian President Vladimir Putin warned against any attack on Iran. He also all but called for the countries of the region to resist U.S. plans to build more pipelines to transport more crude petroleum from the Caspian via routes that would bypass Russia, breaking its supremacy in oil and natural gas exports from the region.

But there is no certainty about the real intentions of the Kremlin - which has multibillion dollar oil and weapons contracts in Iran - because the Kremlin's interests in the region are conflicted.

The Kremlin seems riled up by two recent bills - the Iran Counterproliferation Act of 2007, approved by the House, and the amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 regarding Iran that was proposed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) and approved by the Senate.

The counterproliferation act designates the Iranian leadership as a foreign terrorist organization. The Kyl amendment states that "the prospect of the Islamic Republic of Iran achieving nuclear arms represents a grave threat to the United States and its allies in the Middle East, Europe, and globally."

Mr. Putin was vocal in defending Iran at the summit against a perceived possibility that the United States could use Azerbaijan, one of the five Caspian states, as a staging ground for military action against Iran.

"We are saying that no nations should offer their territory to outside powers for aggression or any military action against any of the Caspian states," Mr. Putin said.

He also tried to undermine U.S. economic and military ties in the region Russia still considers its backyard, a move wildly popular with the increasingly nationalistic Russian elite and ethnic Russians.

This runs hand-in-hand with the Kremlin's immediate goal of protecting its interests in Iran. The Kremlin needs Tehran to increase Russian oil exports (which already rival those of Saudi Arabia) without long-overdue investment in Russia's aging oil-industry infrastructure.

That has been done through oil-swap deals between Tehran and Moscow. The scheme is simple: Industries in northern Iran use cheap Russian oil while Russia sells corresponding amounts of oil from Iran's southern oil fields to non-Western buyers at Iran's Neka oil terminal on the Caspian coast.

One can always rely on the Kremlin's greed.

On one hand, this greed dictates that the Kremlin tries to help preserve peace in Iran to protect its present interests there and the more long-term possibility of developing vast Iranian oil fields.

On the other hand, the Kremlin will only gain - both politically and economically - if the United States strikes Iran and eventually gets mired in an expanded military conflict in the Persian Gulf.

First, a war in Iran would automatically put all the American interests in the former Soviet states, including the Caspian, on the back burner and thus help Russia restore its supremacy there.

Second, it would further boost crude oil prices, flooding Russia, already awash in oil dollars, with more. While the number of Mercedes-driving Russians grows, we may end up riding bicycles to work.

The Iran Counterproliferation Act summary says that "nothing in the bill shall be construed as authorizing force again Iran."

I sure hope the Bush administration doesn't miss the fine print.



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