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By Andrew Jack

LONDON, 13 APRIL 2007—The brief seizure of 15 of its troops by Iran in March gave the UK a human stake in the escalating poker game with the Islamic republic, to add to the Russian financial and the US ideological ones.
In a macabre repeat of an incident in 2004, the detained British soldiers (this time including a woman) were televised apologising after "confessing" to passing into Iranian waters.
If the sea boundary between Iran and Iraq (on which side the British insist they remained) is disputed, it seems most likely that the soldiers were intercepted in a premeditated propaganda coup by the Revolutionary Guard executed during a cross-border smuggling inspection.
The crisis placed the UK in a sensitive position as Tony Blair’s premiership reaches to its end, with his personal legacy much weakened by his support for the war in Iraq.
The last thing the UK wanted was a shift to military confrontation with Iran. And viewed from Europe, it seems hard to imagine that the other key parties in the stand-off with Tehran do either.
For the US, opening a new front against Iran would seem an extraordinary escalation for a White House already so over-stretched politically, materially and morally by the war in Iraq that its efforts at stabilising Afghanistan have been significantly undermined.
The victory of the Democrats ought to have reinforced the administration’s appreciation that the US public– whatever its views on the original invasion of Iraq – is deeply disillusioned with President Bush’s management of its consequences.
Yet there have been too many high-placed leaks and bullish noises from outspoken neo-cons in recent weeks to simply accept at face value the White House’s public denial that it has any interest in a new military escapade.
A Bush-inspired strike against Iran could reflect self-delusion by the president that he is succeeding in stabilising the Middle East; a belief that things could yet improve in Iraq were it not for Iranian interference; or a desperate last fling by neo-cons to pursue an ideological project to transform the region before they are isolated by the next White House.
Then there is Russia, which also has no interest in a war in Iran. President Vladimir Putin longs to re-establish his Soviet predecessors’ seat of influence at the table of world leaders. He hopes to exploit his role as an intermediary in a "multi-polar world", with Russia’s card no longer Cold War enmity but oil-fuelled leverage and the need for an "honest broker".
Putin can certainly claim some credibility in the region – and among the doubters of the Iraqi invasion in Europe and beyond - by virtue of his outspoken questioning of the wisdom of the conflict from early on.
But he is also partly trapped by the post-Soviet mercantilist motives of his military export machine. The desire for trading revenues long provided at least as strong a motivating impulse as any broader geo-strategic objectives.
Recent flashpoints include the supply last year of MiG fighter and other military equipment planes to the Iranians, triggering a US state department banning order on Rosoboronexport, the Russian official state arms exporter.
A longer-standing tension surrounds Bushehr, the nuclear plant under construction by a 2,000-strong Russian workforce in southern Iran, completing a project originally undertaken by the Germans and other western contractors under the Shah.
Russia has long played the free-rider on western diplomacy over Bushehr, somewhat nervous about completion of a plant that could escalate the risk of Iranian becoming a military nuclear power, but happy to benefit from the substantial revenues the project provides.
By dragging its feet on completion of Bushehr, while playing the defender of Iran against a more aggressive western stance, it could play the role of intermediary. Russian’s aim to reprocess nuclear fuel from the plant would also provide insight, monitoring and control to the international community to limit the risk of diversion for military purposes.
Geostrategically, Russia ought in any case to be worried about a military build-up in Iran. Its conciliatory stance presents no obvious immediate threat. But Iran sits on the oil-rich Caspian, is a player in transit routes for oil and gas that by-pass Russia, and has medium-range missiles that put much of southern Russia within range.
Furthermore, Putin is sensitive to the growing concern about Islamic fundamentalism within Russia, in part driven by frustration at corruption and moral bankruptcy in the post-Soviet era.
Last and most in the current stand-off is Iran itself. Given what has happened in Iraq – and what has not happened in North Korea – it is strategically understandable that Tehran has almost certainly sought to build a nuclear military capacity despite its frequent denials.
But it is also deeply troubling, representing a force for regional instability particularly given the hardline rhetoric of President Ahmedinejad against Israel, and the signs of Iranian interference in fuelling conflict in neighbouring Iraq.

The divisions within Iran’s complex governance structures should not be under-estimated, and notably the relatively limited influence in foreign policy and defence matters of Ahmedinejad himself.
The biggest challenge is that, after years of realpolitik that left Iran relatively weak and contained, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a vacuum on either side flank, offering Tehran opportunities for regional influence beyond its previous dreams.
In short, if the UK has every interest in avoiding a war with Iran and the EU is still more broadly opposed, the White House could still be tempted to launch an attack. Russia’s ability to be an free-riding intermediary is coming to an end, and the pressure is on the Iranian to be more cooperative with the international community to avoid tipping the balance.

 Andrew Jack is a British journalist and the author of Inside Putin's Russia: Can There Be Reform without Democracy? (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004, 2007). He is also a member of the editorial board of

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