Thursday, December 20, 2007
Putin's Grand Bargain
I've been sitting with this one all day, pondering what to make of it. And the more I go over it, the more I'm of the belief that Vladimir Putin really does deserve his Time magazine cover.
Iran's Bushehr reactor, whose construction has been suspended pending a dispute over payments (or so the story goes), was supposed to go online six months after the first shipment of nuclear fuel. Russia just delivered that first batch of nuclear fuel, under IAEA seal, a few days ago. But today the head of the company constructing the reactor just announced that it wouldn't go online before the end of 2008.
Along with its veto on the UN Security Council, the Bushehr reactor is Russia's trump card in the Iran nuclear stand-off. Now that the NIE report has dramatically reduced the urgency of the crisis -- ie. extended the timeframe of a resolution -- Russia has every incentive to hold onto the leverage the reactor provides for as long as possible.
But why deliver the fuel this week, and put the reactor online in January 2009? Well, one possible explanation is that this week coincides with a deadlock in the Security Council negotiations over Kosovo, and January 2009 coincides with the remainder of the Bush administration's term in office. By this reading, Russia is sending a signal that, a) it takes the Kosovo crisis very seriously; and, b) if there's a grand bargain to be made (missile defense, CFE, Eurasian bases, Kosovo), it wants to make it with the Bush administration, and not its successor.
Of course, Putin is poised to leave office but retain power. The same, thankfully, can't be said for President Bush. Just about all of his probable successors are likely to adopt a policy of increased engagement with Iran, a policy that weakens Putin's leverage in the standoff. On the other hand, President Bush has every reason to try to push for a final year of accomplishments in order to not leave office in disgrace. And a deal with Russia that not only defused Russian-American tension but also contained Iran's nuclear ambitions would be quite an accomplishment.
It's a cagey move on Putin's part. Keep your eye on the Kosovo negotiations. Should they somehow get sent back to the Security Council for one final attempt at a breakthrough, don't be surprised to see some more advances on other sticking points in Russian-American relations follow shortly thereafter. On the other hand, should the US and EU follow through and guarantee Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, don't be surprised to see the Bushehr timetable miraculously shorten.