"Forgive Russia, Confront Iran"
Op-Ed, Wall Street Journal
December 12, 2007
Author: Robert D. Blackwill, International Council Member, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
We are well along in a systemic decline in Russia's relations with the West. There is a familiar list of complaints from the industrial democracies regarding Moscow's actions, many of them justified. But most of Russia's contemporary offenses pale before what should be the West's highest policy priority -- preventing Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.
According to a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released this week, it will be difficult to convince Tehran to forgo developing nuclear weapons, and Iran could produce sufficient highly enriched uranium for a weapon as early as 2010.
This latest NIE gives us a few more years to use diplomatic efforts than we previously thought. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the United Nations Security Council, or the ad hoc sanctions currently being discussed, will be strong enough to force Iran away from any intention to acquire nuclear weapons, especially given that the effect of such measures are cushioned by oil selling over $90 a barrel. It is also highly doubtful that unconditional U.S.-Iran negotiations would yield results, although we should try. The prospect of severe economic sanctions, along with a package of incentives, would have the best chance of influencing Tehran's policy over the long run.
If diplomacy fails and the U.S. attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, the result would likely be a long war, as Tehran isn't likely to surrender. Such use of force would also further destabilize the Middle East, inflame the Islamic world, strengthen terrorist forces everywhere and would probably produce attacks on the American homeland. Given the projected meteoric rise in oil prices, such military action could trigger a global recession.
Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would have devastating strategic consequences for the West. Should Iran go nuclear, how many Sunni Arab regimes would follow suit? And, should that happen, who believes that in a Middle East with multiple nuclear weapons states, we would not eventually have a nuclear catastrophe in the region, or even a nuclear attack on an American city?
If we are to avoid these horrific outcomes, Russia will have to play a central and positive role. It has more influence in Tehran on this issue than any other country. It has a longtime civil nuclear relationship with Iran, which gives it unique access to the Iranian nuclear elite. And, most important, Russia must agree if the Security Council is to adopt punishing economic sanctions that would have the unambiguous force of international law and might help alter Iran's behavior.
But to engage Russia, we need to substantially change our current policy approach to Moscow. This means that it is time for the West, including the U.S., to stop trying to reshape Russian domestic politics. There is a new sense of dignity and confidence in Russia and ordinary Russians give Vladimir Putin the credit, as demonstrated in the just-completed Parliamentary elections. Although flawed, the elections did demonstrate that Mr. Putin is the most genuinely popular political leader in the G-8, and confirmed that his economic policies and highly-centralized political structure will remain in place in Russia for the foreseeable future.
If the West is to launch a new and more cooperative relationship with Moscow regarding policy vis-a-vis Iran, we should substantially reduce the frequency and the volume of our pronouncements on Russian domestic politics while continuing to find them privately repugnant. This is not to underrate the difficulties of interacting with Moscow on its external policies and its often raw pursuit of power politics and spheres of influence. Unlike during the Boris Yeltsin era, Mr. Putin's Russia perceives Western influence in neighboring states as a direct threat to its enduring vital national interests. This is evidenced by its harsh reaction toward the alleged role of the West in "orchestrating" the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, as well as continuing Western interest in both of those countries, including possible eventual NATO membership.
Russia is vehemently opposed to U.S. plans to install missile-defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. It has clashed repeatedly with the U.S. and the European Union over the independence of Kosovo. Russia and the West differ on the future of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty.
We have disagreements with Russia within the 55-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on the proper role of election observers in former Soviet space. We have arguments with Moscow on the post-Start Treaty and Treaty of Moscow regime. We oppose Russian arms sales to Syria and Iran. We have disputes with the Putin government regarding Russia's external energy policy, and its sometimes coercive character with respect to its neighbors. We haggle over the final terms of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.However, most of these substantive differences between Moscow and Western governments shrink in importance when compared to the short-term and long-term costs that the West would incur through a war with Iran, or Tehran's acquisition of a nuclear arsenal.
I am not suggesting that the West give Moscow a free hand to neo-imperialist instincts that it might have in former Soviet space or elsewhere. But there are strategic priorities, substantive trade-offs and creative compromises that Western governments should consider. The West needs to adopt tactical flexibility and moderate compromise with Moscow on at least some of these issues: the time line of U.S. anti-ballistic missile deployments to Eastern Europe; the entry of new NATO members from former-Soviet space; the status of Kosovo; the contours of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty; the future of strategic arms control; Russia's entry into the WTO; and so forth.
Any conciliatory moves by the West would not be offered up unilaterally with the hope that Russian interactions with Iran would inevitably and fundamentally toughen. Rather, they would be explicitly linked to a Russian approach to Tehran in step with Western policy.
In October, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart that "North Korea poses a fundamental threat, but Iran does not." When asked whether Russia would support tightening economic sanctions on Iran in the aftermath of the announcement of new unilateral U.S. sanctions, Mr. Putin replied, "Why worsen the situation by threatening sanctions and bring it to a dead-end?"
The West needs to convince Russia that, regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions, Moscow's long-term interests are best served by full-fledged cooperation with Washington and Europe. But we only have a chance of doing that if we substantially narrow our policy differences with Russia on some of these other matters.
In the end this strategy might not work. Moscow may remain defiant whatever the West does. Russia may decide that its relationship with Iran trumps Western nuclear preoccupations. Mr. Putin may conclude that it is inevitable that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons and that joining Washington and its allies in a self-defeating enterprise makes no sense. Moscow may wonder if the next American president will follow the same muscular policies regarding Iran as the current one.
So such a Western initiative could fail. But given the stakes involved, it is worth a try. The new NIE has given us more time to avoid a war with Iran. We should use it wisely, in Moscow as well as in the Middle East.
Mr. Blackwill, president of Barbour Griffith & Rogers International, was Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Planning and U.S. Ambassador to India, 2001-2004. A longer version of this article will be published in the January issue of The National Interest.
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