Feb 17, 2009 | 02:55 GMT

5 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: Iran the Sacrificial Lamb?

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
The Russian government confirmed Monday that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the first time in Geneva on March 6. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also commented on recent "signals sent by the U.S. administration" and stated clearly that removing concerns over Iran's nuclear program could lead to "more profound talks on cooperation on missile defense." Ryabkov added that Russia has shown no signs that it will toughen its position on Iran just now, but that diplomatic efforts should be stepped up in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. The signals that Ryabkov was referring to were statements by Clinton and U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns that linked negotiations on U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans in Central Europe to the Iranian nuclear issue. In short, the Obama administration has been signaling that if Russia does its part to cooperate in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions, Washington will be open to addressing Moscow’s concerns over its plans to install BMD facilities in Europe. In what appears to be the first public Russian response to the BMD-Iran proposal, Russia is hinting that it might throw Iran under the bus, but is waiting to see what kind of a deal Clinton offers when she meets with Lavrov in Geneva. Moscow has a long list of demands for Washington that includes everything from BMD to NATO expansion in Eastern Europe to the renegotiation of nuclear arms treaties. The United States, meanwhile, needs Russia’s cooperation in its efforts to establish non-Pakistan supply routes for troops in Afghanistan and curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. This is where the BMD connection comes in: The BMD installations being planned for Europe are designed primarily to thwart a possible intercontinental ballistic missile attack from Iran. If the Iranian nuclear threat could be eliminated with Moscow’s help, the entire justification for BMD in Europe dissolves — giving Russia the breathing space it has been seeking. While the Poles, the Czechs and the Baltic states — all of whom have been counting on the BMD plan to shield them from Russia — are feeling some trepidation as these statements emanate from Washington and Moscow, the Iranians should be feeling especially fearful just now. There is no love lost between Russia and Iran. The brief Soviet occupation of northern Iran during World War II is still remembered, and the Iranians know that Russia’s current interest in Tehran is born out of Moscow's tactical desire to capture U.S. attention on strategic issues such as BMD. So, whenever Russia feels the need to catch Washington's ear, it issues vague threats about supplying Iran with the S-300 air defense system or completing the Bushehr nuclear facility. Though Tehran knows that nine times out of 10 its support from its Russian allies is more rhetorical than material, it relies on Moscow's backing as a means of leverage against the West, particularly on issues concerning its nuclear program and Iraq. At the same time, Russia is well aware of all the talk about the United States and Iran patching up their differences and publicly engaging each other. From Moscow's point of view, it could be only a matter of time before Iran starts shifting toward the West, so the Kremlin might as well derive as much tactical utility from its relationship with Tehran as possible, while it still can. A visit by Iran's defense minister to Moscow on Monday gave Russia and Iran another chance to highlight their relationship and concern Washington with ambiguous talk of greater missile cooperation — but Iran might not be able to count on the Russians for much longer. Ultimately, Moscow's core concerns revolve around protecting Russian influence in the former Soviet region, so that it can survive in the long term as a regional power. That means doing whatever it takes to ensure that EU enlargement and BMD plans for Europe are scrapped, so the Russians don't have to worry about having American troops within a few miles of their borders. If Russia must sacrifice its relatively superficial relationship with Iran to make that happen, Iran could soon be left without a great power backer. The Iranians are facing presidential elections in June and have yet to decide exactly which direction they will steer in negotiations with the United States, but Tehran could use the support of an ally like Russia if and when it chooses to engage with Washington over the future of Iraq. There are a number of issues still to discuss with the United States: Tehran wants guarantees of influence in Iraq and the wider region and security assurances that Iraq's U.S.-backed military force will not become a problem for Iran down the road. At the same time, the Iranians are hoping they can get through these negotiations without having to concede a great deal on their nuclear program. A withdrawal of Russian support — no matter how symbolic that support might be — would deflate Tehran's negotiating position. It would either lead to a lonely Iran dealing with the United States or give Iran more reason to stall until it can find some way to reboot, perhaps through the use of its militant proxies in various parts of the world. In any case, this appears to be a gamble that Washington is willing to take while it forges ahead in dealing with the Russians.

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