March 3, 2009

Obama “ready to drop missile shield for Russian help on Iran”

From Russia’s RIA Novosti:

Washington has told Moscow that Russian help in resolving Iran’s nuclear program would make its missile shield plans for Europe unnecessary, a Russian daily said on Monday, citing White House sources.
U.S. President Barack Obama made the proposal on Iran in a letter to his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, Kommersant said, referring to unidentified U.S. officials.

I’ve long believed that someone should write a book about the complicated ballet of US-Russian-Iranian relations.  Maybe they can call it “Treacherous Triangle.”…
The dispute over missile defense dates back to the Cold War, but is at the forefront of US-Russian tensions still today.  Along with concerns of NATO’s expansion Eastward, the Russians view the proposed missile site in Poland and the corresponding radar in the Czech Republic as an encroachment on their national security. 
If one were honest, one could argue that the missile shield was really George W. Bush’s baby.  Obama has never seemed all that convinced of its necessity (especially given that despite billions of dollars, the missile defense program has yet to prove it even works), and this latest move shouldn’t come as a great surprise.  But it does raise some interesting questions about the geopolitical approach Obama might take toward Iran in particular and Russia and Iran in general. 

It’s long been known that there can be no hope for tougher UN Security Council sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program without support from the Russians and the Chinese.  It’s often cited (though I would argue sometimes too often) that China will follow Russia’s lead, since it wouldn’t want to be the “odd man out” in the permanent five Security Council members.  So Russia holds the key.  But while Russia certainly has an interest in preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon, the threat it perceives from Iran’s nuclear program rises nowhere near as high on Moscow’s priorities list as it does in Washington. 
That’s where the ballet comes in.  
Russia maintains amicable relations with Iran, particularly regarding trade, selling everything from S-300 air defense systems to nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor (more on that below).  In exchange, Iran has proven a valuable ally to have in the global energy markets (the two hold the lion’s share of the world’s natural gas reserves).  But perhaps the most useful consequence of Russia’s closeness to Iran is its ability to exact concessions from the United States. 
In the dance of geopolitics, Russia is adept at playing the US and Iran against each other–when it suits Moscow’s interests, it can shift closer to Tehran; other times it might be better to strengthen ties with Washington vis-a-vis the mullahs.  And when both the US and Iran have laid their objectives out on the table for all to see, it is no difficult task for Russia to gain the upper hand. 
For example, a top priority for the United States is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.  A top priority for Iran is to maintain its sovereign control over the nuclear program.  During the last Bush administration, Russia skillfully navigated the waters in between the two, agreeing to back UNSC sanctions against Iran in exchange for Washington’s acceptance of fuel sales to the Bushehr reactor (for which Russia receives a sizable profit).  And though this may look like splitting the difference, rest assured that there is a lot more that Russia wants from Washington than this, so it has chosen to continue dancing with Iran a little while longer. 
Near the top of this list of demands is a promise from Washington not to go ahead with its plans for missile defense in Europe.  So if Obama really wants Russia’s help in the Security Council on Iran, he’ll have to give up on the proposed sites, which he apparently has agreed to do. 
Now let’s not forget that America didn’t become a superpower by getting pushed around in the United Nations; the US has some leverage over Russia in this dance as well. 
Moscow badly wants last year’s 123 agreement to pass through Congress so it can receive highly valuable technical assistance from American nuclear scientists.  But Obama has been in no rush to give it to them without some reason to do so.  And after last year’s crisis in Georgia, Russia is still in the doghouse in the eyes of much of the international community–a situation which Washington could easily manipulate in either direction. 
Iran, not surprisingly, is in the weakest position of the three.  But after going through most of the 20th century with the superpowers meddling in its internal affairs (to the point of an occupation in 1945 and a coup de t’at in 1953), Iran is desperate to protect its independence and will pump itself up in any way possible.  That makes Iran the X-factor in this trio: Iran at any given moment could do something wildly unpredictable that changes the entire calculus–whether it’s testing a long-range missile or electing a reformist in a democratic election–there’s no telling what it might be. 
One final point about the news today.  According to the above report, Obama is willing to trade the European missile defense program in exchange for Russia’s “help in resolving Iran’s nuclear program.” 
In my view, Russia put forth years ago one of the most sensible proposals for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program to date.  Unfortunately, Iran refused the deal outright, but that is not necessarily a reflection on the Moscow proposal, which was exceedingly original.  Russia has by no means been the best of partners for the US trying to contain Iran’s nuclear program, but it appears to me that this latest gesture from the Obama White House is meant more as an indication of its policy toward gaining influence with Moscow than its earnest pursuit of tougher UNSC sanctions against Iran.  And it might just be an incredibly prudent move for Obama: if he can bring Russia in tighter while at the same time getting a closer hold on the Iranian nuclear program, then when the music stops the United States just might find itself in rhythm for the first time in awhile.

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