Georgia conflict imperils big-power action on Iran

BEIRUT Wed Aug 27, 2008 4:18am EDT

A Russian armoured vehicle leaves the tunnel in the territory of South Ossetia as it heads towards the Russian border, August 26, 2008. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

A Russian armoured vehicle leaves the tunnel in the territory of South Ossetia as it heads towards the Russian border, August 26, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The acrimony between Russia and the West stirred by the Georgia conflict complicates any effort to tighten U.N. sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program.

Yet with the geopolitical and economic aftershocks of the crisis rumbling on, it may be too early for Tehran to assume it is off the hook -- as some Iranian newspapers have suggested.

The United States and its European allies will clearly find it trickier to forge a consensus with a truculent Russia and a wary China on harsher sanctions to curb Iran's nuclear drive.

"If we are moving in the direction of a new Cold War, it will be harder to find a joint solution to problems ... such as the nuclear conflict with Iran," said Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

He dismissed suggestions that this might prompt the United States to opt for unilateral action against Iran.

"Of course cooperation on the Iran issue could fall victim to the current confrontation between the United States and Russia, but this does not have to be the case," he said.

"In past months, the U.S. has moved away from unilateralism on this question and moved towards more multilateralism."

Russia, one of five veto-holding nations on the United Nations Security Council, has backed three previous sanctions measures against Iran, but only after watering them down.

The sanctions have failed to dissuade Iran from pressing ahead with a nuclear program it says aims only to generate electricity, not to make atomic bombs as the West charges.

The Iran News daily said this week the Georgian crisis had removed Iran from world headlines, while Russia's invasion of its neighbor had raised doubts about Western accusations that the Islamic Republic was the gravest threat to global security.

The English-language newspaper discerned clear benefits for Iran in Russia's fierce quarrel with the West over Georgia.

"It makes the enforcement of already ratified sanctions against Tehran more challenging ... and significantly reduces the chances of consensus ... for the imposition of a fourth round of punitive sanctions against our nation."

COOPERATION SURE TO SUFFER

That seems hard to contest, even for Iran's nuclear critics.

"The downward spiral in relations between Russia and the West will make it harder to work together on anything, and Iran policy heads the list of areas that are going to suffer," said Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

"Finding consensus on additional Security Council sanctions was hard to begin with," he said, adding that any new resolution might just focus on better implementation of existing ones.

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama laid out a much more ambitious agenda on Monday, when he said the world must "tighten the screws diplomatically" with sanctions on Iran.

"We've got to do that before Israel feels like its back is to the wall," he said, when asked if Israel had a green light to strike Iran in the absence of more world pressure on Tehran.

The United States is pressing for further sanctions, giving the priority for now to diplomatic over military action.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said this month that the United States "does not see an action against Iran as the right thing to do at the moment" but shared the Jewish state's view that "no option should be removed from the table".

The Georgia crisis has not brought a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear installations any closer, Perthes said. "It will not become easier to lead a third war in the Middle East just because one now also faces a conflict with Russia."

A senior European diplomat said cooperation may be bumpier, but argued that Russia and the United States still share the strategic goal of stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear arms.

"It's no use denying there's a huge amount of tension in the relationship following the Georgia intervention, but there will be a lot of determination to keep the Iran show on the road."

Other diplomats voiced skepticism on the prospects for this.

"Everyone believes Russia will no longer join U.S. pressure on Iran," said a Vienna-based diplomat versed in the Iran issue, describing Russian leaders as furious over Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's "adventure encouraged by the Americans".

Georgia and Russia fought a brief war over South Ossetia this month after Georgian troops tried to retake the breakaway region. A Russian counter-attack pushed inside Georgia.

Moscow's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian region, has fuelled Western wrath.

Paul Rivlin, an analyst at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Centre, said Washington's failure to help its Georgian ally had highlighted an erosion in U.S. strategic power relative to Russia, China and even Iran since the 2003 war on Iraq.

"Hostility to the war at home, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world has had negative effects on the U.S. image and ability to galvanize the international community on any issue, be it the Iranian threat or even support for Georgia," he wrote in a recent paper.

"Russia now has fewer reasons to cooperate with Washington regarding Iran's nuclear program," Rivlin added.

(Additional reporting by Mark Heinrich in Vienna, Kerstin Gehmlich in Berlin and Edmund Blair in Tehran; editing by Robert Hart)

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