Israel Unlikely to Change Russia's Mind on Iran

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is unlikely to change Russian President Vladimir Putin's mind on Iran when he meets with him this week in Moscow, a Russian expert said here on Tuesday. But Israeli officials said they would try anyway.

Olmert arrived in Moscow on Tuesday for a three-day official visit that is timed to coincide with the 15-year anniversary of the renewal of diplomatic relations between Israel and the Russian Federation.

"The main issue on the table is the Iranian issue and [preventing Tehran] from arriving at nuclear capability," said Olmert's spokeswoman Miri Eisen.

Israel and the U.S. see eye-to-eye on the issue of Iranian nuclear development, Israeli officials have said. The U.S. has been pushing for sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program by the United Nations' Aug. 31 deadline. The process of uranium enrichment could be used to make a nuclear bomb.

The U.S., Europe, and Israel believe that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover-up to develop atomic weapons - a charge that Iran denies.

Russia, which is helping Iran build its nuclear reactor in Bushehr, stands behind Iran's right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes, though it opposes the prospect of Iran obtaining an atomic bomb.

Israel would like to convince Russia to back international sanctions against Iran, local reports have said. Olmert told the Knesset on Monday that the Iranian threat was "an existential threat to Israel [and] ... to world peace."

"We think our dialogue with Russia is very, very important," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

It's a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has an important influence on global and regional affairs, said Regev. "We're hopeful that we'll be able to talk with the Russians [and] move closer in our positions," Regev said.

But that is not likely to happen, said Russian expert, Dr. Stefani Hoffman from the Hebrew University.

"I don't think [Israel] will change Russia's mind," said Hoffman. "Israel simply isn't important enough."

Five years ago, Russia may have felt that it needed a relationship with Israel as credit in the West, but now they don't need it, Hoffman told Cybercast News Service in a telephone interview.

Hoffman said she just returned from a conference in Russia celebrating the 15-year anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Russia and it was upbeat and friendly. "I don't think that's really quite the case," she said.

Moscow is more interested in maintaining the "appearance of relations" in order to remain in some kind of powerbroker or negotiating position in the Middle East process, Hoffman said.

Russia - along with the United States, European Union and United Nations - is a member of the Quartet, which formulated the road map peace plan accepted but never implemented by Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Israel and Russia have trade relations and cultural cooperation, Hoffman said. On the other hand, Russia is more linked to Israel's enemies, she added.

Besides the close Moscow-Tehran ties, Russia also sells weapons to Syria. Russia sold advanced Russian-made Fagot and Kornet anti-tank missiles to Syria, which made their way into Hizballah hands and were used against Israeli troops during the war this summer.

Israel provided proof to Russia and sent a high-level delegation to Moscow right after the war to discuss the matter.

In what some officials say could be seen as a gesture to Olmert, who is making his first trip to Moscow since becoming prime minister, Moscow published new, tighter regulations regarding arms sales this month and earlier dismissed a senior official who had been responsible for arms exports.

(It is the first visit by a prime minister since former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited Moscow in 2003. Putin visited Jerusalem a year and half ago.)

Asked about the condition of relations between Israel and Russia, Regev answered, "Israel attaches importance to the bi-lateral relationship with Russia."

Eisen acknowledged the differences between the two but said even though Russia may not always agree with Israel's positions because there is dialogue Israel can try to influence their position.

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