The 'axis of oil'
SAM VAKNIN

Success is the best proselytizer. Faced with the imminent demise of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime, both Russia and Germany – erstwhile champions of peace and the sanctity of international law - have expressed their hope for a swift victory for the much-decried coalition forces.

But this may be too little too late, as far as the United States is concerned. The two countries are firmly included in the victors' gray list – if not yet in their black one. The friction is not merely the outcome of sanctimonious hectoring about human rights from the Chechen-bashing Russians - it runs deeper and it turns on more than a dime.

Another German-Russian collaboration may shortly attain the limelight: the $800 million, 1,000 megawatt light water reactor in Bushehr, an Iranian Persian Gulf port facing southern Iraq. Abandoned by West Germany in 1979 following the Iranian revolution, it was adopted by the Russians in the 1990s. A second reactor is in the offing. More than 2,000 Russians are employed at the site.

Following the discovery by the International Atomic Energy Agency of a uranium enrichment facility near the city of Natanz and an Iranian admission that they are mining their own ore – the IAEA found no evidence then of the use of this uranium in the manufacture of weapons - Alexander Rumyantsev, the Russian atomic energy minister, acknowledged that his country lost control over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran, like Iraq, is a celebrated member of the so-called 'axis of evil'. Thus, the atomic complex, though protected by at least 10 surface-to-air missile batteries, may well be the target of an attack, Israeli and Russian officials told the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group. This will not be without precedent: in a daring air operation, Israeli jets pulverized an Iraqi nuclear power plant in Osirak in 1981.

It is America's aggressive stance toward Iraq that drives the likes of Iran and North Korea back into the arms – and nuclear technologies - of the Russian Federation.

Russia is positioning itself to become an indispensable channel of communication and intermediary between the United States and what the US State Department calls "rogue states".

On March 17, Russia's state property minister, Farid Gazizulin, met Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani during a session of the Iran-Russia Economic Commission in Tehran. The host's message was unequivocal: "Cooperation between Iran and Russia is to contribute to sustaining peace and prevent conflicts in the region."

According to Asia Times, in an earlier visit to Tehran, Russia's foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, pledged to continue to collaborate with Iran on nuclear energy projects. "Iran has no plans to produce nuclear military projects, this is a fundamental truth," he insisted.

Nor is the teamwork limited to commercial goods and services. An October 2001 bilateral framework agreement has since fostered more than $400 million in Russian annual military exports to Iran, including air defense systems and fighter jets.

Russia is also increasingly involved in the crisis in the Korean Peninsula. South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's security adviser, Ra Jong-il, held talks with his counterparts in Moscow and Beijing.

Russia, like the United States, opposes the military nuclear proliferation taking place in North Korea.

Though vehemently denied by all parties, South Korea floated – in an interview Ra granted to the Financial Times - the idea of supplying Pyongyang with Russian natural gas from Siberia or Sakhalin through a dedicated pipeline, as a way to solve the wayward regime's energy problems.

According to the Korean daily, The Chosun Ilbo, the Russian ambassador to Seoul, Teymuraz Ramishvili, revealed that discussions have been held on posting Russian or South Korean troops in North Korea to protect such a pipeline.

North Korea insists that its atomic reactors are intended merely to forestall severe power shortages, now that the 1994 Agreed Framework, to provide it with fuel and two proliferation-resistant reactors financed by the West, is effectively annulled.

Even Beijing, hitherto an unflinching supporter of the 'dear leader', North Korean President Kim Jong II, halted oil supplies to North Korea last month.

The scheme is not new. In February 2002, Russian Deputy Energy Minister Valentin Shelepov declared in Moscow at a meeting of the Russian-South Korean Committee for Cooperation in the Sphere of Energy and Natural Resources that Russia seeks South Korean investments in the coal industry and in oil and gas extraction in Eastern Siberia and the Far Eastern regions.

The Russian daily, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, notes that, together with China, South Korea is already involved in liquefied natural gas ventures in Irkutsk and the Yurubcheno-Tokhomskaya oblast. According to Stratfor, the strategic forecasting consultancy, Russia offered in the past to construct nuclear power stations on its side of the border and supply North Korea with electricity.

Sam Vaknin is the senior business correspondent for United Press International.

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