The Little Sweaty Fist Hypothesis

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"This is very easy to understand," said President Vladimir Putin last year, explaining his idea of an energy policy. "Just think back to childhood when you go into the street with a candy in your hand and another kid says, 'Give it to me.' You clutch your little sweaty fist tight around it and answer, 'What do I get in return?'"

So why, when it comes to the Iranian nuclear file, has Putin finally opened his little sweaty fist, signing on -- with no apparent compensation -- to additional United Nations sanctions against the Islamic Republic while calling for a halt to Russia's construction of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr?

That's the question to which nobody seems to have anything better than a partial answer. From nearly day one of his presidency Putin has been Iran's best friend at the UN and, not so coincidentally, the leading supplier of its advanced conventional weapons. In 2000, the Kremlin tore up the so-called Chernomyrdin agreement, a secret protocol negotiated by U.S. Vice President Al Gore in the 1990s in which Russia pledged to stop selling arms to Iran within five years. In 2002, Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov went out of his way to state that "Russia does not accept President George W. Bush's view that Iran is part of an 'axis of evil.'"

Since then, Russia has openly supplied Iran with sophisticated surface-to-air missiles. There are reliable reports that Russia has also assisted Iran covertly with its ballistic-missile technology. The Bushehr deal, itself valued at $1 billion, was intended as just the first of five planned reactors worth $10 billion. Russian diplomats have diluted to near-insignificance the sanctions imposed so far by the UN. In January, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov paid a call on Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. It seems the meeting went well: "The Islamic Republic," said the Khamenei, "welcomes all-out promotion of relations with Russia, believing the capacity for expansion between the two sides is higher than expected."

And then, on March 19, Iranian, European and U.S. sources reported that Russia had informed Iran that it would not supply the reactor with the uranium it needs to function unless Iran complied with UN resolutions calling on it to suspend its enrichment program. And citing a payment dispute, Russia also began pulling some of its 2,000 personnel from the site, while officially claiming that it was a routine staff rotation. At the UN Security Council, U.S. diplomatic sources confirmed that Russia had been remarkably cooperative in negotiating Saturday's unanimous resolution on Iran, going so far as to blunt an attempt by some of the nonpermanent members to insert language calling for a nuclear-free Middle East -- code for disarming Israel.

What gives? Past experience suggests the answer may yet turn out to be not much at all. At the 2003 Group of Eight summit in Evian, France, Putin reportedly assured the other leaders in attendance that Russia would not supply Iran with nuclear fuel unless they agreed to snap UN inspections of their nuclear facilities. A later "clarification" from Russia's top atomic energy official indicated that Russia would provide the fuel no matter what Iran chose to do about the inspections. Similarly, Vitaly Churkin, Russia's ambassador to the UN, has recently insisted that "there has been no Russian ultimatum to Iran of any kind," while adding that the deal with Iran "was on track." Put simply, the easily resolved payment dispute may be all the fire there is here, and not smoke to cover a sweeping change in Russian policy.

For their part, U.S. diplomats are sticking to their story that the Russian-Iranian split is real -- as does Iran, which in the last week has publicly accused Russia of being an "unreliable partner" taking "double-standard stances." The words are carefully chosen. As Victor Yasmann of Radio Free Europe writes, "Russia cares about its commercial supplier ... [and] preserving its political reputation within the Islamic world." That's especially the case now that Russia's once-failing military exporters are doing a thriving business selling bottom-of-the-shelf weapons to Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Yemen, Algeria and other bottom-of-the-shelf states. If Russia is seen to succumb to international pressure on Iran, other dubious regimes may be less inclined to attach themselves to it as clients.

Yet another reading of events suggests the mixed signals coming from Russia reflect policy schizophrenia within the Kremlin itself. "There is clearly an active pro-Iranian lobby in Moscow," says Pavel Felgenhauer, defense correspondent for Novaya Gazeta. He adds, however, that Moscow's change of policy is "the result of an assessment that a nuclear Iran is a major danger to Russia and its national interests." Among other indicators, Felgenhauer points to Russia's naval buildup in the oil- and gas-rich Caspian Sea.

The Russian leadership may also have started to notice that it is increasingly in bad odor with a West that, at some level, it longs to be considered a part of. "There is a compact pro-Western group who think that cooperation with the major industrial states, primarily the United States, could benefit Russia much more than murky dealings with questionable partners like China, Iran, Iraq or Libya," writes former Russian diplomat Viktor Mizin in a perceptive analysis in the Middle East Review of International Affairs.

Finally, there is the "little sweaty fist" hypothesis. Critics of the Putin government were dismayed last year when the Bush administration agreed to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, apparently for nothing in return. The Bushehr volte-face may be the delayed --and disguised -- payoff. Alternatively, Russia may expect that its sudden pliancy on the Iranian file may yield dividends on the things it cares about most, particularly in what it considers its rightful sphere of influence. In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed that may have also served as a trial balloon, the Nixon Center's Dimitri Simes proposed two prospective giveaways: The breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Putin has long regarded as rightfully Russian, and the looming question of Kosovo's independence, to which Russia is vehemently opposed.

In the meantime, the Kremlin preserves all its options, a reminder, as Glen Howard of the Jamestown Foundation observes, of an old KGB maxim: First create a problem, and then offer to be part of the solution. On that score, at least, Putin is nothing if not true to type.

Bret Stephens is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, where this comment appeared.