Written by Nikolas Gvosdev (editor of The National Interest )and Dimitri Simes (president of The Nixon Center in Washington, D.C.) and published in the Financial Times Thursday, April 6, 2006
The United States has insisted it is serious about working through the United Nations to put meaningful pressure on Iran to give up its quest for a nuclear weapons capability. But the watered-down and anaemic statement issued recently by the UN Security Council (itself a product of three weeks of intensive negotiations) does not bode well for success. It is a useful first step but clearly far short of what the Bush administration wanted.
Yet, as Brent Scowcroft, the former US national security adviser, observed recently: "To deter Iran, it is essential that there be a united front between the US, the European Union, Russia and China to prevent Iran from exploiting any differences or finding any sort of wiggle room that would allow it to continue with its programme."
Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran. And the government of Vladimir Putin, Russian president, understands very well that it is in Russia's interests to be on the right side of the US on an issue as important as this -- especially when Washington is acting in concert with the big European powers.
But Tehran with the bomb is a far less existential threat to Russia than the US. Those in the west who repeat the mantra that an "Islamist" Iran with nuclear weapons would jeopardise Russian security are seemingly unaware that from Moscow's perspective, Iran has, on the whole, behaved as a "responsible citizen" in Russia's neighbourhood.
Russia may be prepared to pay a price to accommodate US concerns, even at the expense of valuable economic ties with Tehran -- but co-operation with the US on Iran is being endangered by the propensity of some in the Bush administration, as well as a rising chorus of voices outside government, to shift US policy from its current approach of engagement towards an unrealistic notion of "selective co-operation".
Proponents of an "à la carte" partnership expect Moscow to support fully Washington on an issue of grave importance to the US, while believing that the US can, at no cost, pursue policies that Russia perceives to be hostile to its interests in the post-Soviet space.
Most Russians believe that Washington has adopted a strategy of opposing all manifestations of Russian influence in the Eurasian space, even when Russia has legitimate concerns -- although its recent move to charge market rates for natural gas was clumsy. The US championed the case of a pro-American government in Ukraine, that it should continue to obtain gas from Russia at heavily subsidised rates. Now observers in Moscow are waiting to see whether Washington will do the same for a Belarus that has been notified that it, too, must pay market prices for Russian energy. They complain that Washington torpedoed a peace plan for Moldova that would have given the pro-Russian region of Trans-Dnistria a considerable degree of autonomy, and are suspicious that the US will stand aside and let Mikheil Sakaashvili, Georgian president, apply military pressure on South Ossetia and Abkhazia -- including deploying US-trained and armed battalions.
Russians -- including many government officians -- question why unfree and unfair elections in Belarus have led to sanctions against that government, while Washington has shown much greater tolerance for equally serious electoral violations in Azerbaijan and has indicated willingness to do business with the neo-Stalinist regime in Turkmenistan. And many in Russia have asked, if democracy is really the issue, why is Pakistan -- a military dictatorship that also had a clandestine nuclear programme -- publicly embraced as a US ally?
Reasonable people can argue that the US position on all these questions is fair and serves American interests. But they cannot deny the obvious -- that such actions are bound to be perceived by Moscow in a completely different light -- and that this has a very real impact on Russian calculations about whether to support the US on critical international issues.
Some in Washington argue that Russian doubts do not matter -- that Russia will be "with us" on Iran, and that there is no need to kowtow to the Kremlin. But there is a big difference between token co-operation (as reflected in the recent UN statement) and the sort of active, engaged effort (including free sharing of intelligence between two services still wracked by a good deal of cold war-era suspicion) that could lead to genuine success in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After all, even though Russia and the US both have been targeted by al-Qaeda, the post-1999 chill on relations precluded any joint action in dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to September 11 2001 -- as Mr. Putin himself had proposed.
The Bush administration has not yet settled whether pursuing a new containment of Russia in Eurasia is a higher priority than forging an effective coalition of the permanent five members of the Security Council on Iran's nuclear programme.
Selective do-operation -- the idea that the US can reap the benefits of partnership with Russia on Iran while still making efforts to roll back Russian influence in the post-Soviet space -- is a chimera. America can undertake the latter if it is prepared to forgo the former. Foreign policy is not a morality play -- and free lunches are rarely available, especially not from Mr. Putin for perceived adversaries. Wishful boasting to the contrary will not make us safer.