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Russia worried about a nuclear Iran, but leery of US sanctions

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Putin vs. Medvedev

Experts say that the careful language masks a debate among Moscow policymakers that has see-sawed over the years between advocates of a pro-Western course and those who argue Russia should strike out on its own, or line up with other powers to challenge US hegemony, particularly in Asia.

In the 1990s then-President Boris Yeltsin secretly agreed with the Clinton administration to ban all arms sales to Iran, a deal that was subsequently repudiated by Vladimir Putin on the grounds that it brought no benefits to Russia. But after President Obama arrived in the White House, President Dmitry Medvedev steered Russia toward agreement with US policy again. He supported enhanced sanctions in the UN Security Council and even cut off Russian arms sales to Tehran as part of a more general "reset" of relations between Moscow and Washington.

The peak of Russia's cooperation with the West came in March 2011, when Medvedev ordered Russia's UN ambassador to abstain on Security Council Resolution 1973, which paved the way for the approval of the resolution authorizing the use of force to protect civilians facing repression from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. That prompted an unusual public argument between Medvedev and his prime minister, Mr. Putin, who accused him of caving in to Western demands.

With Putin almost certain to return to the Kremlin in March elections, the pendulum of Russian policy may be swinging back to a more skeptical view of US global designs.

"Putin believes that one of the main reasons Iran wants to obtain [nuclear weapons capability] is because of the policy of pressure conducted by the US and NATO against it," says Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin adviser who's now vice president of the independent Russian Economic University in Moscow. "Putin believes the US may be actually trying to destabilize the Middle East, because that's what its current policies are objectively leading to. Russia fears that bombing Iran will lead to regional turmoil and unpredictable consequences... He thinks the solution is to negotiate with Iran by offering guarantees that the West will not promote regime change there, as it did in Libya."

Russia, Iran agree not to use US dollar for trade

Another sign that Russia may be going its own way on Iran is a decision, announced this week in Tehran, that Russia and Iran will henceforth use Russian rubles and Iranian rials in their bilateral trade, and eschew the US dollar.

Iran already sells oil to China and India in local currencies, but the deal with Russia could clear the way for an expansion of trade as sanctions-hit Iran, strapped for dollars, concentrates on the few partners who will trade on its terms.

"The impact of this is more symbolic than it is of economic consequence," says Timofey Bardachev of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "With this step, Russia and Iran underline their common agreement that one currency should not be dominating in the world, that it's time to end dependence on the US dollar. That's an important political statement."

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