A month from today, leaders of the eight "most industrialized" nations are scheduled to meet in Strelna, a resort near St. Petersburg, for the annual meeting of what many regard as a "global Politburo."
In the chair will be President Vladimir Putin, hosting the first summit of its kind on Russian soil. US President George Bush along with presidents and prime ministers from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan will join Putin.
After its initial sessions, the "Politburo" will open itself to the leaders of China, Brazil, India and South Africa in a plenary designed to win broader international support for decisions the eight make. According to sources some Arab leaders, among them Iraq's new Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, may also be invited.
President Bush will be going to Strelna with a simple aim: Securing G-8 support for the new Iraq and forging a solid coalition to check Iran's nuclear ambitions. Much of what the Bush administration has done in the past few months with regard to the Middle East has been designed to secure that coveted but ever elusive G-8 unity.
Washington's latest attempt came at the end of last month when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that the US was adopting the European Union's policy on Iran — a policy that successive US administrations had rejected for three decades. Rice was, in fact, honest enough to cite as the main reason for her volte-face the administration's fear that the coalition it believed it had built to deal with Iran was "unravelling."
In other words, Washington was more interested in keeping that coalition together, albeit based on the lowest common denominator, than putting a stop to Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Suddenly the preservation of an instrument shaped for a particular purpose became more important than the purpose itself.
Without wishing to play Cassandra, my guess is that President Bush will get nothing from the G-8 either on Iran or Iraq.
The reasons are simple.
First, with the possible exception of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, none of the G-8 leaders is convinced that the problem with the Islamic republic is the nature of its regime rather than its behavior. This means that the G-8 cannot agree on a diagnostic let alone finding a solution.
As for Iraq, four of the G-8, that is to say Canada, Germany, France and Russia vehemently opposed the war and continue to cold-shoulder new Iraq in the hope that its failure would, in the words of French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, teach the Americans "a salutary lesson."
In Strelna, the four "anti-war" powers will be further strengthened when the new Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi announces his country's change of sides over Iraq. The balance will be tipped further in favor of the "anti-war" camp when we take into account China, Brazil and South Africa who had also campaigned against the war and remain hostile toward new Iraq. (India has a more balanced position.)
While there is little reason to doubt Putin's commitment to democracy in Russia, it would be hard to cast him in the role of an enthusiastic champion of democratization in the world. Nor could one accuse the leaders of China of dreaming about a Middle East reshaped into a cluster of Western-style democracies. The new German leadership under Chancellor Angela Merkel may not be as confused about the Middle East as its predecessor under Gerhard Schroeder. However, it is no mystery that the ruling elite in Berlin regard Bush's doctrine of democratization as naïve if not actually dangerous. As for France under Jacques Chirac, anyone expecting anything more than the crudest form of realpolitik is likely to be disappointed.
However, the overarching reason why Bush is unlikely to obtain anything in Strelna is that a majority of the G-8 summiteers do not want the United States to set the agenda for the Middle East. Nor do they wish to see the US expand its sphere of influence beyond its traditional allies in the region.
It requires no great imagination to see why Russia, China, France and Germany do not relish the prospect of pro-American regimes throughout the Middle East.
Russia and France are still smarting from their loss in Iraq, estimated by Tareq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's longest serving sidekick, at billions of dollars "in contracts in oil, irrigation, agriculture, electricity, machinery, cars and trucks."
Russia, France and Germany are the Islamic republic's three biggest trading partners, enjoying access to a market worth over $300 billion a year. China, for its part, has signed contracts with Tehran worth $70 billion for oil and gas production. Russia and China have also initialed agreements to build 22 nuclear power stations for the Islamic republic over the next 10 years.
Oil is a major consideration for both Russia and China. Russia seeks close ties with the Islamic republic both as a link to OPEC, needed to keep oil prices high, and as a partner in opposing the growing Anglo-American domination of the energy production market in the Caspian basin.
China, facing a dramatic rise in its oil imports, is desperate to find sources of supply that are not controlled by its rivals, notably the United States. One such source is the Islamic republic that sits atop almost 11 percent of the world's known reserves.
Both Russia and China are also major exporters of weapons to the Islamic republic. In fact, some armament factories in Russia owe their survival to orders from Tehran. France, for its part, hopes to secure a share of the Iranian market for its own weapons' industries, not to mention other products such as passenger aircraft. Iran's first nuclear power station was designed and built by Germany before being destroyed in Iraqi air raids in the 1980s. Germany hopes to regain at least part of its previous position in Iran.
Now why should Russia, China, France, and, to some extent Germany, help Bush achieve another regime change, this time in Iran, when that means the emergence of another pro-American power in the Middle East? Even if there is no regime change in Iran, any substantial modification of the Islamic republic's behavior in favor of the United States could udndermine the ambitions of Russia, China, France and, even Germany in the Middle East.
With the end of the Cold War, the classical big power game lost its ideological aspect. However, its other aspects remain. Allies and partners in a broader context, the G-8 powers remain rivals and competitors when it comes to classical causes of conflict such as access to natural resources, share of markets, geopolitical security, and general political and cultural influence.
Unlike the United States, Russia, China, France, and, to some extent, Germany do not see the Islamic republic as an existential threat. Their reason is that the Islamic republic does not want to keep them out of Iran or chase them from the Middle East as a whole, something that it has declared as its central goal vis-a-vis the United States. In fact, any success by the Islamic republic in driving the US out of any part of the Middle East could benefit most other the G-8 members who would instantly move to fill the gap left by the Americans.
Hoping that the G-8 will help the United States solve its problem with Iran is an illusion.