Geopolitical Diary: Linking Russia's WTO Bid to Iran
By: Stratfor.comNovember 17, 2006
U.S. President George W. Bush, on his way to Singapore, made a brief stop in Moscow on Wednesday morning to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin over a breakfast of herring, beets, tongue and caviar. Bush reportedly is more of a granola man, but he appears to have had more important things on his agenda than the food.

The visit has been described as "personal." What exactly the two leaders discussed has not been made public, although a Russian spokesman did mention that they discussed Russia's bid for entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and Iran.

Bush and Putin are supposed to sign a bilateral agreement this weekend at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit regarding Russia's WTO accession. The technical details of the deal have not quite been worked out-at the moment, it is more of a high-level political "agreement to agree" between Bush and Putin-although they have reportedly reached agreement on all major issues. As for what aspects of the deal Bush and Putin might have discussed over breakfast-well, that hinges on Iran.

Bush is at a critical juncture with regard to Iran. Tehran holds the key to stability-or lack thereof-in Iraq, and is calling for open negotiations with Washington on the issue. (Back-channel talks have been going on for some time.) But the Iranians are also trying to use their nuclear program as a lever to improve their bargaining position.

Russia, meanwhile, has been getting itself involved in the Iranian nuclear issue as well. Russia is constructing the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and Russian officials have said numerous times that they would veto a U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolution that is punitive or is intended to target Iran's civilian nuclear program.

Moscow's strategic interest is to act against the aims of U.S. policy on Iran and other issues, attracting Washington's attention away from Russia. Thus, it becomes involved in the Middle East, instigating or perpetuating conflicts that take up the already-limited U.S. bandwidth. Russia likes to present itself as having influence over the Islamic republic, but in reality, Tehran is hardly driven by its relations with Moscow and has no reason to rely on the Russians in its policy decisions.

Bush certainly has an incentive, then, to talk to Putin about butting out of the U.S.-Iran dialogue. He might not even be asking Russia to stop being friendly with Tehran-which would be unrealistic anyway-so much as asking it not to make things more difficult for the United States on this particular issue. To encourage such cooperation, the Bush administration stood down from 13 years of conflict and offered Russia a way into the WTO. The implied threat remains, of course, that Washington could scupper the deal if Russia does not play ball on Iran.

It would not be the first time the two have engaged in political horse-trading. Russian support of the UNSC resolution condemning North Korea's nuclear tests likely came in exchange for U.S. support on a resolution condemning Georgian occupation of Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge. Iran and the WTO are issues of greater magnitude, however.

Putin is currently in a strong position vis-a-vis Bush, whose Republican Party lost the midterm congressional elections and who sorely needs a success in the Middle East. Russia prioritizes the political over the economic, and if its relationship with Iran or its accession agreement to the WTO impede its goals, it is just as likely to withdraw. The United States has that option as well-at least on the WTO front-but it needs to come to some kind of understanding with Tehran. Bush might be hoping that a high-level tete-a-tete with Putin will seal the deal on Iran, just as the WTO deal is being sealed at the top level. The details can come later.

Stratfor is a private intelligence company delivering in-depth analysis, assessments and forecasts on global geopolitical, economic, security and public policy issues. A variety of subscription-based access, free intelligence reports and confidential consulting are available for individuals and corporations.

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