Oliver North

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- Vladimir Putin is on a roll. Last month, he made it clear that he intends to become prime minister -- and keep the reigns of power in the Kremlin -- when his second presidential term ends in March 2008. Last week, in the midst of a bravura "mini-summit" with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin wowed the fawning European media by shrugging off a carefully leaked rumor of an alleged assassination attempt and by speaking fluent German -- a language he mastered as a KGB officer in Dresden during the Cold War. All this apparently took U.S. diplomats and intelligence agencies by surprise. But wait, there's more.

While in Germany, the macho Putin baldly told reporters -- and therefore all those who might contemplate military action against Iran -- "threatening someone, in this case the Iranian leadership and the Iranian people, will lead nowhere. They are not afraid, believe me." And just to make sure everyone got his point, two days later he went to Tehran for a Caspian littoral summit and reiterated to the world that Russia would block any moves to stop Iran's nuclear program. And to ice Putin's cake, reputable polls show that more than 70 percent of Russians approve of his leadership. Officials in Washington, London and Paris don't seem to be worried; but they should be.

Putin's Tehran gambit is much more than a rhetorical affront to the Bush administration's efforts to keep the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons. After meetings with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, the Russian president said, "Iran and Russia are now cooperating on a wide range of issues such as aviation industry, and Russia will continue its contribution to Iran's peaceful nuclear program." Most of the U.S. and European media's sound bites focused on the nuclear issue. Some news reports cogently noted that the Russian-built Bushehr light water nuclear reactor is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, but they ignored the array of gas centrifuges Iran is using to assure a dual-track approach to building nuclear weapons. Almost no one noticed that the new strategic synergy between Moscow and Tehran goes well beyond Bushehr.

First, with the price of petroleum soon to be at $100 per barrel or higher, both Iran and Russia have a financial interest in controlling how Caspian Sea oil makes its way to market. Putin and Ahmadinejad have now made it clear that they will dictate the terms by which Caspian crude will flow to the highest bidder.

Oliver North

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.