Monday, 25 November 2013

Bibi in the Kremlin

Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu – known familiarly within Israel to friends and political foes alike as “Bibi” – spent Wednesday, November 20 locked in discussion in the Kremlin with Russia’s President Putin.  There’s an amiable, jocular ring to “Bibi”, not at all matched by the most common nickname ascribed to his host, Vladimir Putin the Grey Cardinal.  Of the two, however, it was President Putin who lived up to his sobriquet during the discussions and the joint press conference that followed.

It was generally believed that Netanyahu, having reached an impasse with President Obama on toughening the terms of the impending deal with Iran, flew to Moscow to try to persuade President Putin to insist on a full dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities as an essential element of an interim agreement. 

"For Israel,” said Netanyahu in the joint press conference that followed their discussions, “the greatest threat to us and to the security of the world is Iran's attempt to arm itself with nuclear weapons. Both our countries have a joint objective: We do not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons. There is a lot to be learned from the solution achieved in Syria over the chemical weapons, where Russia and others rightly insisted on full dismantling of Syria's chemical weapons."

Neither Netanyahu nor Putin divulged details of their exchanges in the Kremlin. Putin said that they had discussed Iran exhaustively, but provided no indication that Russia had shifted its position in any way, and added only that he was hopeful of a “positive” result from the talks in Geneva a result which has now been achieved.

It is doubtful if Netanyahu’s visit to the Kremlin impacted in any significant way on the outcome of the “interim agreement” reached on November 24.  Conspiracy theories are difficult to evaluate, but on November 17 Israel’s TV Channel 10 asserted that an envoy of President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, had been undertaking secret discussions for several months with Iranian negotiators, and that a draft agreement was presented to negotiators in the first Geneva round as a fait accompli. Valerie Jarrett, who was born in Iran, is a senior adviser to President Obama and Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. The report was categorically denied by the White House, although by November 25 it was splashed all over the world’s media, on the lines of “a historic agreement on Iran’s nuclear program was made possible by months of unprecedented secret meetings between US and Iranian officials.”

One commentator asserts that Israel and Saudi Arabia, like other US regional allies, had been left in the dark about both the secret negotiations and the draft agreement that resulted. However, if an Israel TV station managed to acquire details of a backstairs arrangement between the US and Iran, it is virtually certain that Russian intelligence would have been aware of it. More to the point, reports have been circulating to the effect that it was not a two-way, but a three-way secret deal that had been drawn up, and that Russia itself was “the Third Man”.  Russia, which built Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, has long been on better terms with Tehran than the Western powers it was this relationship that facilitated Russia’s success in persuading Iran’s client, Assad of Syria, to abandon his chemical weapons.

The rumours were to the effect that a draft agreement on Iran’s nuclear program had been worked out between Washington, Moscow and Tehran.  Sergei Kiriyenko, director of the Russian Atomic Agency Rosatom, was reported to have been in Iran for most of the summer with a team of Farsi-speaking Russian nuclear scientists, drawing up the text of a nuclear accord modelled on the US-Russian accord for the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons.  Drafts, it was asserted, were passed between the US and Russian presidents until they saw eye to eye, and finally it was shaped into a document to be put on the negotiating table at Geneva as agreed proposals. 

All of which indicates that, as far as the Iran situation was concerned, Bibi’s trip to the Kremlin was, as the English expression goes, “a hiding to nothing”.  A few i’s needed dotting, a few t’s crossed, but the deal had more or less been done.

Iran, however, was surely not the only topic of conversation between Netanyahu and his Russian host. There was the future to consider.  They must have dwelt on the burgeoning trade contacts between Russia and Israel, and perhaps agreed how relations between the two countries might develop.  Israeli exports to Russia increased fourfold between 2003 and 2008, and since then have continued to grow exponentially, especially in areas like nanotechnology, energy, and joint military projects, including the production of unmanned drone warplanes.  In the first quarter of 2012 Israeli exports to Russia, bucking a general downward trend, increased by no less than 12 per cent, year on year.

On the other side of the coin, there’s the state-owned Russian Railroads, which had been hoping to participate in the new Tel Aviv-Eilat high-speed rail link, if it ever materialises. Or take Russia’s natural gas monopoly Gazprom.  In February 2013 Gazprom clinched a key deal to market Israeli liquefied natural gas from the Tamar and Dalit off-shore fields. Industry sources assume that Russia will wish to expand its activities into the giant Leviathan gas and oil field, and beyond. 

These expanded trade links and enormously valuable deals carry with them a political implication – strengthened ties with Russia, which have in any case been growing closer for some time. After all Netanyahu’s visit to the Kremlin followed not one, but two trips to Israel by Putin, the first Russian leader ever to visit the country.  Putin seems to admire Israel’s toughness in dealing with both its enemies and its friends.  The pre-determined outcome of the Iranian negotiations was beyond Bibi’s power to influence, but his time in the Kremlin almost certainly fostered an even closer relationship with the new growing power in Middle East politics Russia resurgent.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 25 November 2013:

Published in Eurasia Review, 25 November 2013:

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