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Feb. 21, 2007
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When the Bell Tolls for Tehran
// Moscow Hedges Its Bets with a Dispute over Debt
The expiration of the international ultimatum delivered to Iran in UN Security Council resolution #1737 coincides with an unexpected some might even say strange dispute between two "economic agents" played, in this case, by two countries: Russia and Iran. The complaint from the Russian side that Iran has run up an enormous unpaid debt for the construction of the nuclear power plant at Bushehr was immediately denied by Tehran, and Moscow's confirmation of the sad fact that Iran is going to have to pony up has given observers a new puzzle to attempt to wrap their minds around: what could this mean? Given the ruckus of the last several days, Iran's debts have obviously been building up for more than a month or two. Before this week, though, Russian officials, including President Putin, have taken almost every convenient opportunity to present the atomic energy plant in Bushehr as nothing short of the epitome of problem-free Russian-Iranian cooperation. But someone has let slip that there are problems with Bushehr, problems that are no laughing matter. And now it's like a plot twist in a detective novel: one side claims that all accounts have been settled, while the other side wants to know where the money is.
So is it just that the skeleton in the closet of Russian-Iranian relations has popped out at the most inopportune moment, when Tehran is besieged from all sides, or is it something more? Only one thing is clear: the heart of the matter is not the outstanding debt. So what if Tehran has stiffed Russian nuclear engineers of their hard-earned dollars money is clearly not the issue. Moscow is airing the dirty laundry of its economic and trade relations with Iran in response to a weighty political motivation: the inexorably looming denouement of the Iranian drama, which is already forcing every country involved to think many moves ahead about what will be in its best interests when the bell tolls for Tehran.

Moreover, by making a public fuss about Iran's debt, in a political sense Moscow is killing several birds with one stone. First of all, now that the clouds are gathering above Iran, Russia is ridding itself of the increasingly unprofitable impression that it is using its authority and influence to attempt to cover for an ever more obnoxiously defiant Tehran. So Moscow is hewing to its principles not only in its relationship with the US but also in its dealings with Iran. Secondly, the last year of delays in the completion of the construction of the plant at Bushehr and the delivery of nuclear fuel to Iran looks like a calculated attempt by Moscow to play it safe until the storm has blown over. After all, the Bushehr plant is listed as a potential target of American air strikes. But Bushehr will be extremely vulnerable even if the matter ends with harsher sanctions instead of armed conflict. And by pausing its atomic cooperation with Iran before sanctions demand it, Moscow is hedging its bets. In the worst-case scenario, Moscow will be able to save face by throwing up its hands and walking away: we're leaving simply because they haven't paid us.

This quarrel between "economic agents, " like all such disputes, has arrived just in time for Russia.

Sergey Strokan

All the Article in Russian as of Feb. 21, 2007

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