As it prepares sanctions against Russia for allegedly violating Ukrainian sovereignty, the White House is also attempting to quietly loosen its sanctions on Iran in exchange for concessions on the Iranian nuclear program. The two efforts are intricately linked: The United States is trying to free itself of an increasingly outdated geopolitical threat in the Islamic world in order to better deal with a re-emerging risk to the balance of power in Eurasia.
Moscow has deliberately raised the specter of extending its military umbrella beyond Crimea to the generally pro-Russian east in mainland Ukraine. Russia has little interest, much less need, to go this far. Nonetheless, Moscow has made enough of a show regarding Ukraine — through the Russian parliament's approval to deploy troops, the Russian troop movements in Crimea and its military exercises along its western border with Europe, from Finland to Ukraine — that Washington must take the Russian threat seriously.
However, Washington has precious few tools to effectively deal with the situation at hand. The United States is hoping to prevent repeating the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Then, distracted by the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq and the approaching U.S. presidential election, Washington could only muster a hollow demarche in response to Russian aggression. The Poles, Georgians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Lithuanians and Romanians are asking themselves now, as they did in 2008, whether they can trust the United States to set enforceable boundaries with the Russians in this volatile geopolitical space.
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The United States is trying to maintain a tough rhetorical line, and it may well proceed with sanctions to act for the sake of acting. But Washington will need to take into account the concerns of its European allies, who are not interested in opening themselves up to a backlash from the Russians while the Americans sit comfortably an ocean away. While the United States spent Monday vowing sanctions against Russia, the French government said it has no intention of canceling its military agreements with Moscow. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been one of the strongest European critics against Russia, said that the United Kingdom would not support trade sanctions or close London's financial center to Russians. Germany is avoiding sanctions talk altogether and prioritizing direct negotiations with the Russians over Ukraine. Any meaningful sanctions effort by the United States would likely be a lonely one.
So as Uncle Sam shakes an angry fist at Russian President Vladimir Putin, he's also reaching out for a hearty handshake with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The United States has even greater urgency now to tie up loose ends in the Middle East and reach a settlement with Iran. Washington hopes to go beyond a nuclear agreement and develop a stable enough working relationship with Tehran to allow the United States to re-engage other parts of the world vying for its attention. Though the U.S.-Iranian negotiation will be bumpy, it is moving forward, as the U.N. nuclear chief affirmed Monday, with Tehran just as eager to transition from regional pariah to main attraction for energy investment in the Middle East.
Putin believes it is a matter of time until the United States once again makes its presence felt in Russia's backyard. Thus, Russia will devote energy to boosting its own influence in the Middle East to try to keep the United States bogged down in the region. Before the U.S.-Iran rapprochement began, Russia could amplify pressure on Washington by threating to sell arms to and strike sanctions-busting deals with Tehran. By engaging directly with one another, the United States and Iran have designed their negotiation in part to leave Russia out of the conversation. And at this point, Russia's tools in the Middle East are not nearly as sharp as they used to be.
That said, Iran is eyeing the U.S.-Russia standoff with great interest. From the Iranian point of view, the U.S. urgency to make peace, along with Russia's interest in impeding Washington's progress, could temporarily boost Tehran's leverage in talks with Washington. With businessmen lining up for Iranian visas to scout the country's investment scene, Tehran will likely take advantage of the opportunity to improve its position in the nuclear talks, but it will need to do so with care.