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Russia Keeping Busy in Affairs of the Mideast - The Kremlin attempts to balance American influence in the region by quietly launching its own initiatives with Iran and Syria (LA TIMES) By Kim Murphy MOSCOW, Russia 02/02/05)Source: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-russia2feb02,1,1277760.story LOS ANGELES TIMES LOS ANGELES TIMES Articles-Index-TopPublishers-Index-Top
MOSCOW — Russia had grudging congratulations this week for the election in Iraq, but President Vladimir V. Putin is making it increasingly clear that the Kremlin does not intend to let the U.S. dictate the future landscape of the Middle East.

In meetings with leaders of Syria and the Palestinian Authority, Russian officials have asserted their nation´s historic role as a counterweight to American diplomacy in the region and hinted that Moscow, which opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, is prepared to play a role in bringing stability to the country.

"The fact that the elections did take place is a great event, perhaps even a historic event for the Iraqi people, because it definitely does mark a step toward democracy in the country," Putin said Monday after meetings with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

"We realize that there is a great deal of work ahead both to ensure safe conditions for life in Iraq, and to restore full sovereignty…. Russia welcomes this event, and we will do all we can to bring about settlement in and around Iraq," he said.

But even as Moscow extended an offer of help in Iraq, it has been quietly launching its own initiatives with Middle East nations that the U.S. has criticized for suspected support of terrorism.

Over the last few weeks, Russia has made clear that it plans to continue supporting Iran´s controversial nuclear power program, is determined to remain an active partner in the Arab- Israeli peace process, and may renew its Cold War-era role of arming Israel´s Arab neighbors as a means of assuring military "balance" in the volatile region.

Underscoring Moscow´s ties to nations in the region, Iran´s ambassador here held a news conference Tuesday to assert his nation´s concurrence with Russian officials´ opposition to a unipolar world dominated by the U.S. and with Moscow´s continued support of his country´s nuclear power program. U.S. officials fear the program will be used to develop nuclear weapons.

"I want to say that … our nation is much stronger than it was when the Americans were driven out of Iran," Ambassador Gholamreza Shafei said.

Russia, over U.S. objections, is leading the construction of a 1,000- megawatt light-water nuclear power reactor at Bushehr that U.S. officials believe could ultimately be converted to weapons use. The reactor is scheduled to go online in 2006. Iran last week also concluded a $132- million contract with Russia to develop and launch a communications satellite, Shafei said.

The Iranians´ persistence in developing a nuclear program has led to concerns that the U.S. or Israel might launch military attacks to destroy facilities. Last month, the New Yorker magazine reported that U.S. forces had already gone into Iran seeking to verify possible targets. The Bush administration disputed the report´s accuracy but did not categorically deny the assertion.

During their visits to Moscow, Palestinian leader Abbas and Syrian President Bashar Assad won not only pledges of Kremlin support as a broker in the Mideast peace process but assurances that Russia maintained the right to sell "defensive" weapons systems to Arab nations in conflict with Israel.

After an international outcry last month, Russia and Syria reportedly put a hold on talks on the sale of advanced SA-18 Igla surface-to-air missiles, which the U.S. and Israel say could reach the hands of terrorists. But senior Russian officials emphasized that their nation maintained the right to sell weapons to nations such as Syria, which in the Cold War era depended on the Soviet Union to build a formidable military force against Israel.

"While we´re talking about supplies of weapons to countries in the region, such a supply should be understood in the light of supporting defensive capacities, as in Syria," Putin told the Jerusalem Post.

The president said Russia would not supply weapons that could fall into the hands of terrorists. Israeli and U.S. officials fear shoulder-fired missiles could filter into the hands of Hezbollah in Lebanon. The U.S. has also expressed concern about incursions of anti- U.S. insurgents from Syria into Iraq.

Syria, which obtained forgiveness of nearly three-quarters of its $13.4-billion military debt with Moscow during Assad´s visit last week, appears to be hoping that a more assertive Russia will benefit Arabs in negotiations with Israel. Russian officials have called for the inclusion of Lebanon and Syria in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, the withdrawal of Israel from Arab lands occupied during the 1967 Middle East War and the creation of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

"After years of U.S. failures to bring about just and comprehensive solutions for the Middle East problems … a Russian return to Middle East politics seems welcome and necessary," the Syria Times said in an editorial on the eve of Assad´s trip.

Analysts said Moscow was taking pains to remind the U.S. that Russia cannot be left out of any attempts to fashion a future Middle East.

"There was a time when Syria was regarded as Moscow´s strategic bridgehead in its confrontation with the USA and Israel," columnist Dmitry Makarov wrote in Argumenty i Fakty last week. "The visit to Moscow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be seen as the latest in a line of foreign policy moves that show Russia shifting its focus from the West to the East."

In part, some analysts said, Russia is merely seeking to regain the international diplomatic clout once wielded by the Soviet Union.

"Russian policy is largely driven not by rational national interests, but by this complex of former greatness," said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "Any leader in the Middle East or elsewhere knows about this complex, and can take advantage of it by helping Russia to continue to play this role for a perk or a privilege.

"That is why it is quite obvious that Russia will continue to supply nuclear technologies to Iran," he said, "until the very day when the Bushehr power plant is bombed out of existence by the United States." (Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times 02/02/05)

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