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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Testing Putin on Tehran

Thirteen days after Sept. 11, President Vladimir Putin met with 21 leaders from the State Duma and the presidium of the State Council to determine Russia's response to the United States' war on terror.

"One of the participants advocated support for the Taliban," reports Grigory Yavlinsky, who was present, "while 18 participants proposed that Russia remain neutral in the fight between the United States and the terrorists. Only two said that Russia should participate in the anti-terrorist coalition."

Putin sided with the two, which instantly became the majority. Putin then seized the opportunity to abandon long-held strategic positions without humiliation and to gain a superpower ally in Russia's inexorable rivalry with China.

Remember last year's hand-wringing by French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder about that cowboy Bush's insistence on a missile defense system? Recall their panicky prediction that his withdrawal from the ABM Treaty would surely start a new arms race? Then U.S. President George W. Bush abrogated, the Chinese hyperventilated and Putin all but genuflected.

Remember the horror of U.S. accommodationists at the East-West "collision course" sure to be caused by expansion of the NATO alliance to include nations flush against Russia's borders? Strange as it seems, many members of the old Soviet Warsaw Pact have already joined, and soon the three Baltic nations will be welcomed. Putin has been pacified with regular NATO consultation.

Remember the elite derision at how (yecch!) unilateralist it sounded when Bush said he would reduce the nuclear missiles we have deployed by two-thirds no matter what the Russians did? In Moscow this weekend, Putin will blandly go along with that cut, and in return for codifying both in a three-page treaty will not object to our keeping undeployed nukes in our attic.

Ordinarily, these happy developments would cause a paroxysm of gloating by hard-liners, but they are denied their deserved nyah-nyahing by the same device Putin used on his score of Russian naysayers: Sept. 11 reshuffled the deck. Diplomatic circumstances changed, and so mistaken predictions cannot be held against the muddled multilateralists.

No longer does Putin fear humiliation if he gives way on armaments he cannot afford. Russian pride was salved by the injury inflicted on the United States and its need for intelligence help in the terror war, as well as public buttering-up by an avidly trusting Bush. Putin's "turn to the West" -- more to the United States than Europe -- does not seriously undermine his popularity at home.

After welcoming Bush to Russia and following the usual signing, embracing and Cold-War-is-over effusion, Putin will get to the point: His nation needs capital investment as well as entry into the World Trade Organization. His population is down to half the U.S. size and his economy is half as big as that of Portugal. But Putin will remind the United States that he is sitting on the world's largest oil and gas reserves, which could break the OPEC cartel.

Bush, one hopes, will stress the need for sanctity of contracts and the end of wholesale bribery to attract investors. He should tell Putin his stranglehold on the mass media makes a mockery of political freedom and point out that a war on terror is not a free pass to continue to brutalize Chechen civilians.

Then to the big one. For a whopping fee, Russia is helping Iran construct a 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor at Bushehr (a name George W. can easily remember) with a uranium conversion facility able to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons. At the same time, hundreds of Russian technicians are helping Iran develop the Shahab-4 missile, with a range of over 2,000 kilometers, to carry a nuclear or germ warhead anywhere in the Middle East and into Europe. Iran's terrorist arm is Hezbollah. If its agents are armed with a weapon of mass destruction, and if that weapon is used against the United States, then it would have to retaliate against the terrorists' sponsors and suppliers. Thus for Russia to help Iran empower Hezbollah is hugely detrimental to Russia's interests.

Bush should make clear it would be the end of a beautiful friendship.

William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times, where this comment first appeared.