reflections

Geopolitical Diary: The Georgian-Russian Conflict and a Return to Iran

5 MINS READAug 20, 2008 | 01:39 GMT
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Iranians waited, starving for attention. When last we visited them, the Iranians had met with the United States and the rest of the permanent members of the Security Council, including Russia, had concluded a meeting at which the Iranians were supposed to deliver their answer to demands that they freeze their uranium enrichment program. The United States had given Iran two weeks to provide a clear and satisfactory answer. After the meeting, the United States announced that the Iranians had failed to deliver and therefore new sanctions would be imposed, per prior agreement with the members of the negotiating group. Just before this, of course, the United States and Israel had very publicly increased the pressure on Iran, carefully orchestrating a sense of impending attack. The Israelis had staged a mock attack on Greece to demonstrate their military capabilities and the United States had carefully released information about the secret exercise's existence. Reports circulated of Israeli aircraft operating at U.S. air bases in Iraq. The Internet was awash with rumors of a massive U.S. fleet on its way to the Persian Gulf to blockade Iranian ports. Let us pause here for a moment and address all those who wrote in to us asking why we didn't mention this fleet. For the record, we didn't write about it because there is no fleet. It was just one of those things that make the blogosphere an exciting place to visit. Moving forward. At the time, we regarded these threats by the United States as bluffs, but the possibility of sanctions against Iran as very real. And then Georgia intervened. Now, bluffing the Russians on Georgia took precedence over bluffing the Iranians and the U.S. administration went quiet on Iran. Moreover, the very real possibility of additional sanctions has become less real, since the Russians were a key element to those sanctions. If the Russians don't participate, the Iranians will have to buy European goods through the Russians, an inconvenience with a mark-up but hardly a threat to their national security. Therefore, as we return to the Iranian crisis, it becomes important to consider what the Russians are going to do and the questions that arise therefrom. First, given the response from NATO on Tuesday that it is still prepared to give NATO membership to Georgia in the future, we ask — are the Russians prepared to participate in the Iranian sanctions regime called for by the United States? Second, and far more important, what is the red line for the Russians? To be more precise, at what point in the American response on NATO do the Russians decide to counter by increasing arms shipments to the Iranians, including the advanced S-300 air defense system, as well as resume supplying nuclear technology for Tehran's civilian reactor? The United States is at the point where it needs to decide which issue takes priority, Georgia or Iran. We do not see an easy way for the United States to press the Russians on Georgia while also expecting Russian cooperation on Iran. The Iranians also have important decisions to make. In our view, the Iranians had basically made the decision, in part because they felt isolated from all great powers, to accept the neutralist solution in Iraq and negotiate some settlement on the nuclear program. Now the Iranians must be thoughtfully considering the Russian position toward them and watching to see how far U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate and whether they can recruit an ally. If they can, then all bets on Iraqi stability could be off. Meanwhile, Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr re-emerged from the shadows Tuesday threatening to help drive the Americans from Iraq. That is usually a sign that Iran is testing the water. Our guess is that the Americans will deal with the problem at hand, which is Iraq and Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That will mean that after a period of delivering strong messages to the Russians, the United States will back off from doing anything that will cause the Russians to retaliate in Iran. In turn, we will soon see warnings made to Russia replaced by warnings made to Iran, and Russia, having started to reshape its sphere of influence, will resume its cooperation with the United States. Thus, we would expect to see Iran on the front pages again shortly. If this doesn't happen, if the administration keeps pounding the Russians and leaves the Iranians back at the ranch, then a very quick and strategic re-evaluation has taken place and we are in a different place indeed. Thus, we will likely see the next phase of this evolution unfold on the front page of the New York Times and Washington Post when the administration leaks new, highly secret plans to attack Iran.

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