President George W. Bush has described his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as "a strategic ally" and "a friend we can trust." But as the diplomatic maneuvers to pressure Iran continue, can Washington count on Moscow?
Of all the powers involved in the current showdown with the Islamic Republic, only Russia is in a position to tip the balance between a peaceful resolution and war.
To start with, Russia, which is building an Iranian power plant near Bushehr, could slow down, or even suspend the project pending a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
Russia has another card to play in the shape of its proposal to set up a special uranium enrichment project for Iran to cover the needs of the Bushehr plant during its entire life-span of 37 years. (At present there is an agreement for Russia to provide the plant with fuel for the first 10 years.) To make it easier for the Teheran leadership to save face, the Russian proposal could be modified to have part of the enrichment process done in Iranian facilities and with the participation of Iranian technicians.
All that, however, may lead nowhere because President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may actually want a military conflict with the US as the opening shot in his promised "clash of civilizations."
Ahmadinejad seems convinced that the US, plagued by bitter internal dissensions, does not have the stomach for a fight with the Islamic Republic and its radical allies. Thus he may want a clash over the nuclear issue, which, thanks to the Goebbelsian presentation of it, is seen by many Iranians as a matter of nationalistic pride.
The Russian position at the Security Council is crucial because China, which also has a veto, would not be prepared to isolate itself by siding with Iran if Russia sided with the United States. If Russia vetoes, so will China. If Russia does not veto, the most China might do is abstain.
THE BUSH administration knows all that. This is why it is beginning to build up pressure on Russia ahead of the next G-8 summit, scheduled to be hosted by Putin in July.
The American calculation is that Putin, having won the presidency of the G-8 for the first time, is unlikely to start his tenure by splitting the group to please the mullahs.
Nevertheless, it will not be easy for Putin to make an unambiguous choice between Teheran and Washington. Russia needs the Islamic Republic as part of Moscow's effort to curtail US influence in Central Asia, the Caspian Basin and the Middle East.
As regional allies, Teheran and Moscow have already succeeded in curtailing American influence in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. In Tajikistan, Teheran - which sided with the US against Russia a decade ago - is now switching back to Moscow. In Trans-Caucasia, Teheran and Moscow have sided with Armenia against Azerbaijan and Georgia, both of which are in the American camp.
In Afghanistan, Teheran and Moscow have been working closely for more than a decade and are currently engaged in developing a joint strategy in anticipation of an American withdrawal once Bush leaves office.
Moscow also needs Teheran to prevent the US from imposing its proposed model for the exploitation of the Caspian Sea. The US, backed by Britain, proposes a division of the Caspian among its littoral states so each can conclude separate contracts with foreign nations. Of the five littoral states of the Caspian only two, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, are favorable to the US proposed model.
Russia and Iran are against. They propose that the Caspian be treated as a single unit in which all activity, including exploitation of energy resources and navigation, require the consent of all littoral states. (The fifth littoral state, Turkmenistan, has tried not to take sides but is closer to Iran and Russia.)
Having lost all of its Arab clients of the Soviet era, Moscow also needs Teheran as a bridgehead to the Middle East, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The current analysis in Moscow is that once Bush is gone, Iran will emerge as the dominant power in Iraq and will need Russia as a strategic partner in developing such major oil fields as Majnun, which sits astride the Irano-Iraqi frontier.
It is also in conjunction with the Islamic Republic that Russia envisages making a comeback in such places as Syria and Lebanon, where Iranian influence is already well-established.
THE US is not the only strategic rival that Russia has identified. Also looming on the horizon is China, which many Moscow analysts see as a potential threat to Russian interests in Asia and the Middle East.
In that context a Sino-Iranian axis could isolate Russia in Western Asia and the Middle East and even shut it out of chunks of Central Asia.
Another reason why Moscow needs the Islamic Republic is related to the so-called Islamic time-bomb that is ticking in the heart of the Russian federation. With birthrates among ethnic Russians in free fall, the federation's Muslims, now a fifth of the population, are slated to double by the middle of the century.
The Islamic Republic, although a Shi'ite power, could nevertheless play a role in discouraging secessionist tendencies among Russia's Muslims. Conversely, a hostile Iran could use its immense experience in exporting terrorism to make life difficult for Russia.
Add to all that the fact that Iran is the biggest market for Russian arms, including aircraft and submarines. The loss of the Iranian orders could force entire lines of Russian weapons industries to close down.
The two neighbors have also signed trade contracts worth $80 billion over the next decade. And Russia hopes to build most of the seven nuclear power plants the Islamic Republic wants to set up in the next 10 years. The fact that more than 30,000 Russian technicians work in Iran adds an important human dimension to the relationship.
Big power games, oil, Islam, trade, arms and terrorism are some of the factors that make it hard for Putin to side with the Bush in the coming confrontation with the Islamic Republic.
But there is another, perhaps more important, factor: Putin can never be sure that when the crunch comes, Washington will not strike a deal with Teheran, leaving Moscow in the lurch.
The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.