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Axis of Outcasts

Vladimir Putin's new friends suggest that Russia has a familiar new set of national aspirations.

11:00 PM, Mar 2, 2005 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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A CURIOUS CAST OF CHARACTERS has made its way to Moscow in recent months. Since November of last year, leaders from Iran, Syria, and Venezuela have all paid visits. Each has sought military and economic assistance from the Russian Bear; none of them has been turned down. Russia's conspicuous choice of allies has become so noticeable that in a recent article the Moscow newspaper, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, has even called them an "axis of outcasts."

In many ways, Russia's relationships with these otherwise undesirables shaped the agenda for President Bush's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on February 24. Russia's support for this "axis of outcasts" has already emboldened America's enemies and contributed to the instability of the Middle East and Latin America. It also raises serious questions about the direction of Russo-American relations and the efficacy of U.S. foreign policies.

One key issue in last week's mini-summit was Iran's (as well as North Korea's) attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. In this regard, presidents Bush and Putin appeared to be in agreement. At the post-meeting press conference President Bush assured the world, "We agreed that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. I appreciate Vladimir's understanding on that."

But, recent events demonstrate that Putin and Bush do not agree on how to contain the Iranian nuclear threat. More importantly, without a concrete plan for deterrence, it is not clear what Putin's disapproval of Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations means, if anything.

In fact, less than one week prior to the Bush-Putin meeting, the "outcast" Iran sent its emissary to Russia to work out the details of further collaboration on Tehran's nuclear efforts. On February 18, Hasan Rowhani, chairman of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, met with the elite of the Russian government to discuss the long-stalled Iranian-Russian deal for nuclear fuel. The fuel is necessary for the first Russian-built nuclear facility in Iran, the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, to become operational and it is supposed to be repatriated after its use. The return of the spent fuel, Moscow argues, will prevent Tehran from extracting the fissile material necessary to make a nuclear warhead. Moscow and Tehran had disagreed over the terms of the deal for quite some time, but Rowhani's trip was a success and Russia agreed to finalize the deal just days after Bush's meeting with Putin.

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION had hoped to convince the Russians not to go through with the deal. The United States and its allies are concerned that Iran will circumvent the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) watchdog--in a manner similar to North Korea--and find a way to create warheads (possibly dozens of them). Both Russia and Iran have publicly stated that the fuel deal is for civilian uses only. But oil-rich Iran's need for nuclear energy has been widely questioned and it is clear that, in the words of the CIA's declassified analysis, these projects enhance "Tehran's ability to support a nuclear weapons development effort." Alarmingly, the Bushehr plant is possibly the first of several the Russians plan on building.

Russia's dealings with Iran have not only brought the rogue state one large step closer to building nuclear warheads, but have also enhanced Tehran's ability to deliver them. Forgotten in much of the coverage of Iran's nuclear intentions is the fact that Russia has provided Iran with key assistance in developing the Shahab-3 missile, a fairly imprecise missile that is specifically designed to carry non-conventional warheads. As the CIA's declassified analysis also notes, Russian entities have "helped to accelerate Iranian development of the Shahab-3 MRBM, and continuing Russian entity assistance most likely supports Iranian efforts to develop new missiles and increase Tehran's self-sufficiency in missile production."

At the post-meeting press conference Putin gave this account of his discussions with President Bush over Iran's goals: "We talked a lot about the situation in Iran, about the situation in Iran--North Korea, and we share a common opinion in this regard, and we are taking a similar approach. We should put an end to the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. The proliferation of such weapons is not in the interest of specific countries, or the international community, in general."

But what do Putin's assurances mean if Russia is still supplying the fuel necessary to make the nuclear warheads and the capability of delivering them?