Diplomacy: Iranian threat 101 – teaching Moscow the basics

When it comes to the question of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel and Russia are on entirely different planets.

netanyahu medvedev 311 (photo credit: AP)
netanyahu medvedev 311
(photo credit: AP)
It is jarring sometime to see how certain things that are considered so clear and obvious in Israel, are simply not seen as such to many people – and governments – abroad.
The very best example of this is Iran’s nuclear intentions. Ask any Israeli why Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants nuclear capability, and he or she will almost certainly, even reflexively, reply that the purpose is to build a nuclear bomb.
But not everybody thinks like we do. Last December Andrei Nesterenko, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman, was in Jerusalem for talks, and held a briefing with a few Israeli journalists.
The most striking impression that emerged from that briefing, during which Nesterenko explained Russian thinking on a variety of different subjects, was the degree to which it seemed that when it came to the question of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel and Russia – or a least Israel and the public face of Russia – were on different planets.
Incredibly, nearly two decades after Israel and Russia began talking about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the debate about whether Iran was pursuing nuclear capability in order to build Weapons of Mass Destruction, or merely so it could more efficiently turn on the lights in Teheran, was still raging.
This impression was reinforced a few weeks later when Russia’s deputy foreign minister Alexander Saltanov told The Jerusalem Post that Moscow was not convinced Iran planed to weaponize its nuclear program, and that Russia had not been shown evidence convincing it otherwise.
Likewise Yevgeny Primakov, the former Russian prime minister and one of Moscow’s most widely-respected Middle East experts, said at a conference in Jordan that “Russia has no concrete information that Iran is planning to construct a weapon. It may be more like Japan, which has nuclear readiness but does not have a bomb.”
Here we were in Israel all convinced that the only reason Iran was pursuing nuclear capabilities was for weapons, while in Russia – a crucial country in the whole Iranian debate – they still harbored grave doubts and were asking for incontrovertible evidence.
It should have come as no surprise, therefore, that the first question Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was asked Tuesday at a briefing in Moscow’s Grand Marriott Hotel with seven of Russia’s leading diplomatic journalists, was what proof Israel had to indicate Iran wanted to build nuclear weapons.
First of all, Netanyahu replied, there was the fact that Iran had an arsenal of long range ballistic missiles which could reach not only Israel, but well into Europe and deep into Russia as well.
Secondly he said, one could not overlook the revelation late last year of the secret Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Qom. Why build a secret enrichment facility, he asked, if you were not interested in weaponizing your nuclear program?
Thirdly, he said, was Amhmadinejad’s announcement this month of wanting to enrich uranium up to 80 percent, something you only need if you want weapons. And finally, he added, was all the intelligence information being shared by a number of key governments around the world, information he said he was not a liberty to share.
Had the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear intentions and capabilities been written today, its conclusions would have been vastly different, he assured the Russian journalists. At the time the much criticized NIE wrote “with high confidence” that Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program in the Fall of 2003.
You don’t build a secret facility in Qom, you don’t build centrifuges to enrich uranium to a high level, and you don’t build ballistic missiles in order to launch medical isotopes, Netanyahu said in a sarcastic reference to the Iranian claim that its nuclear program was intended for the production of medical isotopes to diagnose and treat disease.
NETANYAHU’S CHALLENGE, during his two day trip to Moscow this week, was far greater than trying to convince the journalists, but rather to convince President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Iran’s designs.
Asked after his meeting with Medvedev if the Russians now believed that the purpose of the nuclear program was nuclear weapons, Netanyahu – who was seated next to Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein – cast him a smile, and said that it would be an “understatement” to say the Russians no longer maintained there was no evidence of weaponization. Edelstein served as Netanyahu’s interpreter during the meeting with Medvedev.
But in Russia, where the national symbol is a double-headed eagle and power is shared by Medvedev and Putin, it is not enough to convince Medvedev, Putin, too, must also be persuaded. And, according to diplomatic officials on the trip, Putin is the more difficult sale. While Medvedev has come around, one official said, Putin is still on the fence.
Still, even with Putin, Netanyahu emerged from a 2 1/2 hour meeting with the Russian leader at Moscow’s White House very upbeat, saying that “Russia understands very well the problem with Iran.” 
“I think that the most important thing to understand is that there is a general agreement today among almost all the governments in the Arab world, Europe, US and Russia, that there is an interest that Iran does not become a nuclear power,” Netanyahu told the travelling press after that meeting.
“It is different than it was in the past. I have spoken about the Iranian issue for 14 years, and I remember the first time I raised this to the US Congress when I was prime minister the first time around, they raised their eyebrows,” he recalled. “Today no eyebrows are raised.”
Netanyahu said the question the world’s governments – including Russia – were grappling with today was how to stop Iran’s nuclear program, not whether it needed to be stopped. And that, he said, was a significant difference.
But there are some who argue that Moscow’s continued public denial of the nuclear weapons intent of Iran is designed precisely so that the Russians will not have to take action.
And, indeed, Moscow’s public denials that Iran is aiming for nuclear weapons continued into Netanyahu’s trip. While there were no joint press conferences with either Putin or Medvedev during the premier’s visit, or any other press availabilities with either of the Russian leaders, the English-language Moscow Times continued to write this week that Russian officials say there is “no direct evidence that Iran is pursuing an atomic bomb.” 
Sergei Karaganov, head of an influential Russian think tank – the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy – said in a conversation with the Post in December that there were reasons for this public stance, and that while Moscow might not publicly admit that Teheran was looking to build nuclear bombs, privately the Kremlin knew exactly what the Iranians were after.
But by not publicly admitting the Iranians had designs on nuclear weapons, Karaganov said, Russia exempted itself from having to do anything, from having to back strong sanctions. If you don’t admit that there is a problem, according to this train of thought, you don’t have to be expected to do anything to help solve it.
Netanyahu said it was clear to him from six hours of combined talks with Medvedev and Putin that Moscow recognizes very well that there is a serious problem with Iran. What remains elusive to the public, however, even after Netanyahu’s visit, is just how – or even whether – Russia intends to help solve that problem.