Moscow Faces Tough Choices Regarding Iran
Richard Weitz

International security experts warn that Iran is about to obtain sufficient enriched uranium through its indigenous nuclear program to be able to manufacture at least one nuclear weapon, giving it “nuclear breakout capability.” The Obama administration is now seeking to gain greater Russian assistance to avert such an outcome, offering the prospect of concessions regarding the planned deployments of U.S. missile defense in Europe in return. Yet, Moscow’s willingness and ability to “deliver” Iran is dubious.

BACKGROUND: Although the Obama administration is still finalizing its new approach toward Tehran, its members have already made clear their desire to negotiate directly with Iran on key issues of concern to both countries. These topics include Iraq, Afghanistan, other regional security issues in South Asia and the Middle East, and above all Iran’s nuclear program.

Russian officials have expressed support for the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with Tehran. Shortly after Obama’s inauguration on January 20, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Moscow would be prepared “to help establish direct dialogue” between Washington and Tehran. Ivanov explained that he hoped such discussions could help “resolve lingering questions about the Iranian nuclear program and other troublesome aspects of Iranian-US relations.” A few days later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that, “We expect that the United States, considering the fresh approach that seems noticeable in regard to Iran, will be able to make a more effective contribution in resolving these questions than in recent years.”

Perhaps the most important benefit to Moscow from a relaxation of the American-Iranian confrontation would be a shelving of U.S. plans to deploy missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic. Perhaps for this reason, President Obama sent a letter to President Medvedev pointing out the obvious connection between the two issues. Although denying news reports that he had offered an explicit quid pro quo – the United States would cancel the deployments if Russia would end the Iranian threat – he apparently made clear that if the threat of an Iranian nuclear attack against NATO countries or other U.S. allies ended, then so might the need for U.S. missile defenses in Europe. The President later explained that, “What I said in the letter was that obviously to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for or the need for a missile defense system.” Members of the Bush administration had also made this connection, offering in principle to delay activating the missile interceptors in Poland until Iran had demonstrated a capability to strike Europe with ballistic missiles.

Thus far, however, the Obama administration has not described Moscow as a possible mediator between Washington and Tehran. Rather, the new administration has characterized Russia as a possible partner with the United States and other countries in solving the problems arising from Iran’s nuclear problem. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for instance, has said that the administration would use “smart diplomacy” to address “concerns regarding Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.” This effort would include “Russia as a cooperative partner because we intend to forge a more constructive relationship.”

Yet, the Obama administration seems ready to adopt a more confrontational policy than preferred by Russia. At her joint March 6 press conference in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Clinton said that the Obama administration was undertaking “a very broad-based policy review,” but she defined its task as to determine “potential steps that can be taken to try to dissuade or prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, work for the end of Iran’s support of terrorism directly and through proxies, like Hamas and Hezbollah.” Although Clinton encouraged Russia to offer suggestions regarding how best to achieve these goals, she added that, “Obviously, along with any new approaches are ones that we think are important to continue, namely sanctions, both unilateral and multilateral.”

Even before the Geneva meeting, an unnamed senior U.S. official said that Russia would actually have to take concrete actions that helped diminish the threat Iran might present to the United States and its allies for the new Obama administration to abandon the missile defenses planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. “It’s not that the Russians get to say, ‘We’ll try and therefore you have to suspend.’ It says the threat has to go away.” He described the purpose of Obama’s letter to Medvedev as “almost saying to them, put up or shut up.”

IMPLICATIONS: Although Russian officials have indicated that they share the goal of averting a nuclear-armed Iran, they object to using additional sanctions or other coercive measures to alter Iran’s behavior, claiming these would be counterproductive and harden the Iranian regime against making further concessions regarding its nuclear weapons program. Instead, they call for enhanced dialogue between Washington and Tehran as other cooperative measures to moderate Iranian behavior. In addition, Russian policy makers reject the idea of linking Russian policy toward Iran to American concessions regarding missile defense. Instead, they want the United States and its Atlantic allies to agree to alter what they describe as their anti-Russian positions regarding missile defense, NATO enlargement, and European security in general in return for a relaxation of NATO-Russian tensions and Russian support for Western efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Moscow’s resistance to linking progress on these issues to the Iranian nuclear question derives from Russia’s countervailing interests in Iran, especially a desire to remain the Islamic Republic’s most important foreign partner, recognition that Moscow’s leverage in Tehran is embarrassingly low, and the mistaken perception that the Obama administration will yield on many current Russian-American disputes without Moscow having to make major concessions.

Russian officials and commentators have tended to ignore or dismiss the notion that Russia should abandon its security ties with Iran to halt the U.S. missile deployments. When asked about the issue during a visit to Spain in early March, President Dmitry Medvedev replied that, while Moscow was interested in discussing Iran’s nuclear program and other security issues with Washington, “talk about some bargain or exchange” would be “counterproductive.” Medvedev added that he was awaiting specific proposals from the Obama administration on how to reshape U.S. missile defense plans into a cooperative endeavor with Russia and other countries that would advance European security.

The opinions offered by RIA Novosti commentator Ilya Kramnik, if representative of the views of the Russian national security community, underscore the great difficulties any American effort to link missile defense concessions to Russia’s policies towards Iran might encounter. Kramnik insists that “the two issues can and must be discussed between Russia and the U.S., but each in the framework of its range of problems. Iran, as part of the overall range of issues in the Middle East and Central Asia, and missile defense as part of the issues of European and world security.” He argues that Moscow has no choice but to work with Tehran regarding such important regional security concerns as the Caspian Sea, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. He also warns that, “by directly supporting the U.S., Russia risks to lose much of its political clout built up in recent years in the relations with the Middle East and Central Asian countries.” Rather, Kramnik describes Moscow’s task as inducing the United States to alter its own policies towards Iran and its neighbors so that they align more with Russia’s regional objectives. In the case of the BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, Kramnik argues that these cannot be separated from “the whole range of security issues in Europe.” He includes in this category NATO expansion, the possible establishment of American military bases in the new alliance members, and the need to discuss restructuring the entire European security system in line with Medvedev’s previously announced proposals. Finally, Kramnik advises the Kremlin that the recent financial crisis might compel the United States to abandon its costly BMD programs unilaterally without any concessions by Russia.

CONCLUSIONS: The cross pressures affecting Russia’s policies towards Iran also complicate Moscow’s attitude towards the rest of Eurasia. One the one hand, Russian leaders want to secure Western assistance in curbing Islamist extremism and narcoterrorism in Afghanistan and containing their spread into neighboring states, including Russia. For this reason, Lavrov and Clinton both mentioned a desire for bilateral collaboration regarding Afghanistan in their joint press conference at Geneva. Yet, Russian policy makers are eager to limit NATO’s influence in Eurasia as well as increase Moscow’s leverage over the alliance. Russian policy makers have therefore encouraged their allies in Kyrgyzstan to reduce Western governments’ access to the Manas Air Base at the same time that the Russian government has allowed the United States and other NATO countries to transship non-lethal goods through its territory in support of their military contingents in Afghanistan. Whereas American officials want Russia to adopt a harder line toward Iran in return for U.S. concessions on European missile defense, Russian policymakers expect that NATO’s need for Moscow’s support in Afghanistan will compel the alliance to yield to Russia on diverse Eurasian security issues.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He is the author, among other works, of Kazakhstan and the New International Politics of Eurasia (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2008).