What Price Russia’s Help With Iran?

By John Vinocur

Russia, it would seem, is finally making some of the right noises about tougher sanctions against Iran. Excellent.

But is it being reflexively suspicious to ask what’s the deal, where’s the catch, the quid pro quo that the United States and/or its friends will be pressed to concede in return?

You can assume that Russia, never amused by the notion of a potential nuclear armed Islamic power on its southern flank, has been waiting for the right moment when its status as Iran’s major arms supplier and purveyor of civilian nuclear wherewithal could be leveraged into maximum yield.

Last week, Nikolai Patrushev, the usually hawkish secretary of Russia’s Security Council, suggested that his bosses regard that this propitious interval starts now.

He offered up an acceptance of the obvious — for years withheld by Moscow — saying, in effect, that the mullahs want to make a bomb. And he combined that revelation with the not fully articulated subtext that maybe, just perhaps, we might find a way to slow the project down.

This was not Russia in a cooperative epiphany, or a conversion to sympathy for the West.

That isn’t happening. Publication in Moscow the week before of a new military doctrine for the decade, in which the possibility of NATO’s expanding its membership eastward was held up as an existential threat to Russian security, certified the opposite.

eng_obamaBut while draft papers listing possible sanctions against Iran circulate at the U.N. Security Council — the French are reportedly recommending action to cut off Iranian gasoline imports, the Americans avoiding it — the Russians seem to see the juncture as one where the Obama administration is susceptible to maximum pressure. And one where helping on Iran and dimming the prospect of a fundamentalist theocracy with nukes puts Russia on track for a payoff.

In this line of reasoning, President Barack Obama is susceptible on two levels: 1) Through the largely ineffectual appearance so far of his attempt at engagement with Iran. 2) As a result of still inclusive talks on a strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, which the president dearly wants as a symbolic triumph but whose failure or challenge in a ratification debate in the Senate could threaten his domestic constituency’s support and his international prestige.

The Russians clearly see profit in the Obama administration’s entanglement.

Frankly, what good tactician wouldn’t be looking for a wedge to potential givebacks when “a partner and friend” like America is trying at once to look tough on Afghanistan, terrorism and China while being an advocate of a world without nuclear weapons? Or a leader appearing to offer little clarity, in relation to its allies’ sense of urgency, on what should be the level of new pressure on Iran and how fast it must be applied.

I talked to an international security and nuclear arms expert who spent most of a recent week speaking to Russian counterparts. He said there wasn’t a conversation that didn’t begin without a Russian’s saying something like, “The important thing these days is for NATO to make clear it is not adding new members” in the Russian neighborhood.

Is that what Russia wants as quid pro quo on Iran? Or could a tradeoff be in a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty whose terms would explicitly link strategic nuclear arms and defenses against them, something that Russia seeks to connect to plans for a U.S. missile shield in Europe against Iranian nukes, and that the United States has resisted?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated this month that NATO must remain open to all qualified applicants. As to the fine print of the Start treaty’s successor, The Associated Press, wondering in a dispatch from Moscow whether the Americans’ language was shifting in Russia’s direction, said this might please Russia but noted, “any restrictions on missile defenses would make it difficult for the White House to win approval for the treaty in the U.S. Senate.”

So is there a reasonable price to pay for Russia’s help?
 
  
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