Has the Iranian atom become a bargaining chip?

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Pyotr Goncharov) - The media has long been talking about the use of the Iranian nuclear program as a bargaining chip in Russian-U.S. relations.

The proposed deal is as follows: the United States leaves Georgia to Russia, and in exchange Russia allows it to lead Iran like a lamb to the slaughter. To all intents and purposes, Georgia's adventure in South Ossetia should have dismissed this option, but the suspicions of an exchange have become even stronger. However, it is not clear how justified they are.

The tune was set by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In the first days after Georgia's "restoration of order" operation it was obvious in all TV reports that Condi was finding it hard to control her emotions, although this is not typical of her. She did not chew a tie like Mikheil Saakashvili, but excessive irritation is not helpful in such cases.

Eventually, Washington threatened to re-think its relations with Moscow across the board. In response, Russia's envoy to the UN Vitaly Churkin told U.S. television that "Russia may deny its help to the United States in resolving some major problems, for instance, the one with Iran."

This exchange of diplomatic "niceties" took place against the background of American and NATO naval exercises apparently directly linked to the Iranian nuclear problem.

The Egyptian Middle East Times reported that having completed exercises simulating the blockade of the Iranian coast, the joint U.S., British, and French fleet is already moving to the Persian Gulf. The fleet includes three carrier groups, the first led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt with 80 aircraft, the second by the USS Ronald Reagan, and the third by the USS Iwo Jima. All in all, more than 40 naval units, including aircraft-carriers, cruisers, and submarines, some of which carry nuclear weapons, will gather off the Iranian shores.

This situation is hardly normal, though the United States regularly concentrates excessive numbers of naval units in the Persian Gulf. The Middle East Times wrote that Kuwait has already introduced a program of action in the event of war.

For the most part, experts are talking about two explanations. Under the first one, the United States and its allies are getting ready to blockade Iran. They want to shut down the Persian Gulf, through which Iran receives 40% of its fuel, and to prevent the Iranian navy from sinking oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz in case of a blockade. The second theory is that the huge naval presence is intended to support Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

The first looks more plausible. Just the other day, the U.S. Department of Finance imposed new sanctions against five Iranian companies for their contribution to the nuclear program. It has frozen their assets in the United States, and prohibited American companies from dealing with them.

Europe has not remained a passive onlooker, either. The European Union has introduced more sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program (in addition to those envisaged by the relevant Security Council resolution), considerably reduced the issue of credits to limit trade with Iran, and toughened inspections of sea and air shipments between the EU and Iran.

These facts point to a plan to impose a tough economic blockade on Iran. Most experts believe that the state of the Iranian economy will compel Tehran to surrender.

Air strikes at Iranian nuclear facilities seem premature. Israel is not ready for a war with Iran because it is not invulnerable to potential Iranian missile retaliation. The new air defense systems promised by the United States will become operational no sooner than 2009. Moreover, the United States is reluctant to supply Israel with precision offensive weapons because it does not want it to go to war with Iran.

However, a sea blockade may lead to Iranian retaliation, which is bound to trigger off a large-scale war in which carrier-based aircraft will not be enough. Some media reported that Rice unexpectedly visited the Incirlik air base in Turkey, which plays a key role in U.S. air operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tehran has not yet responded to these actions, though it has issued its routine reports about the development of a new submarine, a radar-evading surface ship, a new generation plane that can fly three thousand km (1,864 miles) without refueling, and the launch of a satellite or its model. It also promised that anyone who attacks Iran "will not leave the region alive."

The United States, to say nothing of Israel, will not bomb Iran in the near future. But this does not mean that Moscow will shut its eyes to the unilateral U.S. and NATO naval blockade of Iran.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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