Russia dangerously drew the line against new sanctions on Iran on Wednesday in a revealing response to a new report from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA inspectors outlined "credible" evidence that Iran has been secretly working on ways to build a nuclear missile warhead.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said additional sanctions favored by the United States, France and Britain "will be seen in the international community as an instrument for regime change in Iran." That seems a gross exaggeration, but it highlights a big difference between the West and Russia.
The Western democracies would welcome regime change that replaced Iran's dictatorial and repressive political system with an open democratic regime. That apparently is not Russia's view.
By staking out a position as the friend of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Russia only contributes to rising international tension, unless it can deliver an Iranian promise to abide by United Nations Security Council demands that it stop activities leading to nuclear weapons.
That seems unlikely. President Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that Iran will not budge "one iota" from its nuclear program.
The risk is, as Israeli President Shimon Peres said Sunday, that "the possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied than the application of a diplomatic option." That's because "there is an impression that Iran is getting closer to nuclear weapons," he said. Israel in recent days carried out military exercises that could be interpreted as preparations for an attack on Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that the new report by the IAEA showed "the international community must bring about the cessation of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons which endanger the peace of the world and of the Middle East."
Stronger sanctions might persuade Iran to stop. President Ahmadinejad has acknowledged that current sanctions are beginning to bite. "Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore," he told the Iranian parliament last week.
But to make new sanctions effective requires cooperation from Russia and China, nations which trade heavily with Iran. Both recently blocked the Security Council from applying sanctions against Iranian ally Syria for its bloody crackdown on political protests.
Russia has played this sort of divisive Middle East politics in the past with disastrous consequences. It befriended Egypt and Syria in their build-up to the 1967 war against Israel and gave them even more military assistance before the two nations attacked Israel in 1973.
The stakes now are even higher because they involve nuclear weapons. The international community must recognize -- and work together to minimize -- Russia's apparent reversion to its risky role as a Middle East troublemaker.