Russia Toughens Stance on Iran - Why?

Reuters: Russia warns Iran over nuclear program

This is a strange move of sorts from Russia. The Kremlin has always been reluctant to impose sanctions on Iran, and have been only more reluctant since the infamous National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capabilities came out at the end of last year. Why the change in the position?

Recent events
Did any recent events provoke Russi into making this move?
Kosovo independence (and Russia’s inability to prevent it)?
• Upcoming Russian elections?
• The recently released IAEA Iran report (which eased some pressure on Iran)?

None of these events seem a likely impetus for Russia’s actions, for mostly obvious reasons:
• Why would Russia want another geopolitical loss after Kosovo?
• Putin is expected to stay in power in elections anyway.
• The IAEA report made Iran look like the good guy.

Another possibility
It is quite possible the White House made a deal with Russia and Putin to move forward with sanctions. The details such a compromise would entail can only be guessed at.

Russia looking to provoke Iran?
Though this is more of a conspiracy theory like idea, it cannot be ruled out. The U.S. and Iran have been engaged in talks for a while now, and could be nearing a deal. By threatening to agree to new sanctions, the former superpower could turn up the heat on Iran, which could aggravate Iran, causing Tehran to cancel any deal it might have worked out with the U.S.

What should the U.S. do?
The U.S. has a fairly easy decision to make, from my point of view. If talks with Iran are producing results, sanctions should be delayed. If talks are going no where, hat tip Moscow and pursue further sanctions.

Layout Change

The layout here at IRB has been changed. As much as I liked the last template, I like this one even more.

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Russia to Cut Off Energy to Europe?

One possible Russian response to Kosovo independence that I completely left out of my analysis yesterday was the possibility that Russia could cut off energy to Europe. This strategy has been employed before and is shown to be effective.

Putin might decide against this response because of the possible repercussions.

Kosovo Independence: Russia-Serbia Relations and Russian Reaction

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Sunday, ending months of waiting. The U.S. and most other NATO nations already have or will to recognize the nation as a sovereign state. This has all been expected for months, but there are multiple variables that could change, all depending on the reaction of one country: Russia.

Background – Putin’s interest in the region

The Russian government has let the world know that it does not approve of an independent Kosovo. But why does Russia even have an interest in the region? To understand we need to travel back to rough times in Russia.

Vladimir Putin took over the Russian Federation just before the turn of the twentieth century, after the economically devastating rule of President Gorbachev. Russia was weak, and the citizens of Russia didn’t like it. They had been the strongest nation on Earth, in power with the United States, for 50 years. And they wanted that prestige and influence back. Russia was sliding down a nasty slope.

So along comes Putin. The former KGB agent is ‘elected’, and takes hold of the Russian Bear, stops it, and swings it around in the opposite direction. Well, that is what he would have you think. It will suffice to say that during Putin’s reign, life for the average Russian improved. With the improvement of the everyday Russian’s life, so came improvements for Russia’s power abroad. The country is once again strong, and still getting stronger.

The Russian bear has once again gained enormous influence over its satellites. It has gained much of this power by promising to protect its satellites and their interests better than the West can. This strategy has been the central doctrine of Moscow’s regional policy since Putin took power.

Along comes Serbia. Although never part of the U.S.S.R., Serbia, deep in Eastern Europe, has always fallen under Russian influence. Essentially, Russia wants Serbia to look to Russia for help rather than the West. This is why Russia has been against Kosovoan independence. If the Russians can successfully stop the West from allowing Kosovo to secede from Serbia, Russia looks stronger than the West.

In other words, Vladimir is proving himself (and Russia) to Serbia. But Russia is not only demonstrating its recently regained influence to Serbia; Putin has staked a great deal of his political reputation on stopping Kosovo from gaining independence. He is proving Russia’s power to the rest of the world.

Russia’s reaction
100 hours have passed since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. So far, we have seen a limited reaction from Russia; nothing more than more diplomatic protests than usual. Russia doesn’t have a wide range of choices. Military action is an unlikely possibility because of geographic problems and for geopolitical reasons. A trade embargo would seem to be likely, but would be totally ineffective. Of course, Moscow could declare a trade embargo anyways, in a largely symbolic move. But other than that, Putin has three moves.

Two breakaway regions in Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, could be recognized as independent or even absorbed by Russia. The two nation’s desire for independence has long been backed by Moscow, and Georgia has always been a thorn right on the border of Russia. Half of the country swallowed up by another would surely cause disruption. Russia would point to this action and say, hey, if you can change borders, so can you.

A second strategy might involve disrupting the West’s interests. In retaliation for the recognition of Kosovo, Russia could create problems at the United Nations Security Council. A potential target could be the third round of sanctions for Iran. This is the most likely Russian response.

This third approach is the most bizarre: do nothing. Putin has known the independence would come, and there’s not a lot he can do about it. If he were to stand back and watch the United States and the European Union control the situation, it would be very, very bad geopolitically for Moscow. They would look horrendously weak in front of the former Soviet Union, the West, and the rest of the world.

What should the U.S. do?
Now that Kosovo has been recognized, the United States no problems besides Russia. If Russia’s actions can be successfully contained, this whole Kosovo incident can be a good memory for everyone. Well, except for the Russians of course.

The United States has the most worry at the U.N.; that is where the most damage would be taken, and Russia’s most likely reaction. How can the U.S. prevent this damage from being taken? The Bush Administration will have to make concessions in other areas if they wish for the Iranian sanctions to pass.

A smarter strategy might have been adopted before Kosovo declared independence: pass sanctions before Kosovo declared independence.

It doesn’t matter now. It is time to look forward, and to develop a new strategy for dealing with the Russians in Eastern Europe.

Good News: Sadr to Extend Ceasefire?

Sources tell Reuters that "powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is expected to extend a six-month ceasefire by his Mehdi Army militia."

This is great news. Moqtada al-Sadr's peacefire has been one of the reasons the surge has had such military success.

If he doesn't extend the ceasefire
If Sadr decides to end the ceasefire, contrary to Reuter's anonymous source's beliefs, the effect could be devastating.

Shiite on Shiite violence would flare up, as would Shiite on Sunni. New chaos would only slow the already snail-paced political action.

But why would Sadr want to reextend the truce?
A couple of reasons:
1. The U.S.
The United States has kept up pressure militarily and politically to hold Sadr down. The surge was one of the key reasons the Shiite cleric called for the ceasefire; once it began winding down, Sadr could have expected to be able to end his truce and not have to worry about too many Americans. There was a change: Defense secretary Robert Gates came out last month and said troop withdrawals could stop in the spring. This has probably given Sadr a lot to think about.
2. The Iraqi government
The Iraqi government has also kept up the pressure on al Sadr.
3. The Iraqi people
Let’s give the guy the benefit of the doubt: he’s looking for a peaceful solution without having too many casualties.
4. Iran
This, in my opinion, is the most interesting force possibly pushing al-Sadr to continue the cessation of hostilities. The U.S. and Iran have been having talks over Iraq for quite a while now, but no news has made it out of the talks. Have the two countries struck some sort of a deal? Even if they haven’t, is Iran looking to make a deal and holding al-Sadr back so one can be made?

It’s possible.

Hizbollah to Retaliate for Assassination at Israeli Embassies?

Reuters: Hizbollah threatens Israel at slain commander funeral

Retaliation at embassies or Jewish centers? Quite possible.

Another full scale war in Lebanon? Highly unlikely. Israel is still recovering from the last war. PM Olmert doesn't have enough popularity to support another incursion into Lebanon, let alone a full scale operation.

Who Killed Imad Mughniyeh?

A quick list of possibilities:
1. The Mossad
Motive: Revenge; to stop him from carrying out any more attacks.

2. The CIA
Motive: Revenge; to stop him from carrying out any more attacks.

3. A rival Hizbollah member
Motive: To move up on the Hizbollah political ladder.

Stay tuned for more.