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Russia's "Great Game" in Iraq and Iran

As America's debate over toppling Saddam Hussein's regime intensifies, Russia is moving to center stage. This week Russia signed a $40 billion trade and economic cooperation treaty with Iraq while meeting Iranian leaders to discuss nuclear non-proliferation. Christopher Granville, a former British diplomat and now chief strategist for United Financial Group, a Russian investment bank, analyzes Russia's long-term interests and likely actions.

While no country seems able to trouble the Bush administration's military calculations concerning Iraq, Russia does combine serious interests in the region with marginally significant military capabilities. But Russia's real importance in any looming US-Iraq war lies not so much in its residual military power, as in the light its position sheds not only on the Iraqi problem but on that other member of the "axis of evil": Iran.

So far, the most striking feature of the Putin administration's handling of the US-Iraq situation has been its silence. If forced to state a view, Russian diplomats stick to a standard line about implementing UN Security Council resolutions and the need for Security Council endorsement of any new actions against Iraq. Unlike other leading West European countries, President Putin and his government prefer to keep their heads down, reflecting their wish to nurture Russia's new and still-fragile rapprochement with the US.

But this explanation does not fit Russian policy on Iran, where, despite US pressure, the Putin government is quite literally sticking to its guns by selling weapons and civil nuclear technology to Teheran. The nuclear issue came to the fore during the recent visit to Moscow by US Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.