One of the most-often cited reasons for the U.S. to repair its fractured relations with Russia is the notion that the Russians could help pressure Iran to curtail is nuclear ambitions. There is, for sure, a big upside for the U.S. if Russia were to become a reliable ally—but curbing Iran is not one of them. The fact is, the assumption that Russia’s extensive energy and technology ties with the mullahs could be used to influence Iranian nuclear policy is wishful thinking. It also underestimates how resistant Iran would be to any outside pressure on these issues.
This is not meant to discourage the Obama administration from pressing ahead with a more conciliatory approach towards Russia. It’s hardly a secret that NATO is an irritant to Russia. In a speech to military leaders this week, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev cited NATO’s “efforts to widen its military infrastructure near the borders of our country” as an impetus for Russia’s “large-scale rearming.” But the fact that our relations with Russian are in disrepair only underscores that any attempt to outsource our Iran problem to the Russians is misguided.
Short of war—which is all but unthinkable both on military and economic grounds—Iran’s nuclear program is not going to be halted by other states. The world is going to have to adjust to that reality and figure out how best to handle it.
But it is equally important not to respond to Iranian moves with decisions that are sure to degrade relations with Russia. That’s why the Obama administration’s recent bid to link Russian cooperation on Iran to a U.S. halt to planned missile defense installations in central Europe was off base, and even counter-productive.
Ever since the Bush administration proposed building the installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow has viewed the missile defense plan as a serious provocation. At the annual security conference in Munich in 2007, then-President Vladimir Putin gave a blunt, sharply critical speech assailing U.S. policy and citing the missile defense plans as one of the main irritants in Russia’s relationship with the West. One of the Western responses to Russian objections is that the small number of interceptors that the installations would contain could not significantly counter Russia’s nuclear arsenal, and therefore poses no threat. But this misses the larger problem Moscow has with the development of the technology itself. From the Russian perspective, the installations appear to be a test run of anti-ballistic missile technology that could then be deployed elsewhere, representing an extension of the earlier U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2001.
Nor have the Russians been moved by the U.S. portrayal of the installations as a defense against Iranian attack. This was abundantly evident in November, when President Medvedev raised the specter of deploying Iskander missiles to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on the Polish border as a retaliatory measure. Medvedev made it clear that he intended to treat the installations as a challenge to Russia, and it has been the smart, restrained response of the Obama administration to Medevedev’s speech that has made improved relations between our two countries a real possibility. That said, those relations should not hinge on Russia’s ability to achieve unrealistic goals in Iran.
In truth, the proposed deal of eliminating the missile defense installations in exchange for Russian pressure on Iran is not that balanced a trade, as it offers the Russians relatively little incentive to jeopardize one of their better trading and diplomatic relationships. In the Russian view, these installations should never have been negotiated with the Polish and Czech governments, and they represent another advance of Western military forces into central Europe that was not supposed to follow the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the region. Canceling the installations now appears as the elimination of something that should never have come into being in the first place.
This does not mean that non-proliferation cannot be an important part of U.S.-Russian ties. Far more productive and achievable non-proliferation cooperation with Russia regarding the security of nuclear materials in Russia and the former Soviet Union is possible, and it is this option that the administration should pursue in future negotiations. A nuclear Iran would be a candidate for a negotiated deal similar to the one reached with India that would allow Iran to develop its program in exchange for more stringent anti-proliferation monitoring. As with India, this would move outside the traditional Non-Proliferation Treaty framework, which has already been shown to be obsolete several times over the past decade. However, it would provide significant safeguards that Iranian nuclear material does not become a source for any non-state actors or other regimes, reducing any potential Iranian threat to one that can be readily contained and deterred.