Engaging Russia on Iran

To prevent a nuclear Tehran, Obama will have to work with Putin.

There are many reasons to lament the wary state of relations between the United States and Russia—and between President Obama and Russian president Putin—but the most gnawing reason concerns the ongoing Iran nuclear talks, set to resume in Baghdad on May 23. To understand this, it helps to note a number of diplomatic and geopolitical realities.

Reality #1: America today faces no global issue more grave than the question of whether Iran builds a nuclear arsenal. Obama has repudiated any intention of adopting deterrence of a nuclear Iran as an acceptable policy option, and most Republican leaders seem to embrace this approach as well. That means, most likely, that one of only three outcomes will ensue: either these negotiations reach an agreement whereby Iran gives up any resolve to acquire nuclear weapons; the U.S. president retreats from a solemnly expressed resolve; or there will be war.

Reality #2: Iran seems to be signaling a renewed willingness to take seriously these talks between the Islamic Republic and the so-called "P5+1" (the five UN Security Council members—Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States—plus Germany). Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei recently said: "Iran is not after nuclear weapons because the Islamic Republic, logically, religiously and theoretically, considers the possession of nuclear weapons a grave sin and believes the proliferation of such weapons is senseless, destructive and dangerous." President Obama seemed to credit this pronouncement when he sent word to Khamenei, via Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he considered the supreme leader’s pronouncement to be a foundation for negotiations.

Reality #3: Iran’s apparent willingness to talk probably stems in large measure from international sanctions imposed on the country in recent years, ratcheted up significantly the past year or so. The country is shackled by tough constrictions on its banking system and an expanding global boycott of its petroleum. The Washington Post reported recently that Iran’s oil revenues are declining as its oil sits in storage tanks or floats in tankers with no destination for off-loading the cargo. In 2009, according to estimates, Iran’s oil sector accounted for 60 percent of total government revenue, and the regime’s sensitivity to this revenue flow is reflected in the estimate that a dollar decline in the price of crude oil could reduce government revenue by $1 billion. The Post quoted the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, David Cohen, as saying: "I don’t think there is any question that the impact of this pressure played a role in Iran’s decision to come to the table. . . . The value of their currency, the rial, has dropped like a rock."

Reality #4: America and most other countries still remain highly skeptical of Iran’s true intentions and purposes. One particular danger in the negotiations is that the Islamic Republic will use them as a stalling tactic—talking a good game while continuing to spin its centrifuges and produce the kind of highly enriched uranium used in bombs. Particularly mindful of this danger is America’s prime Middle Eastern ally, Israel, which could lose patience with the negotiating process and seek to curtail the time and space Obama may consider necessary for an eventual deal.

Reality #5: Whatever’s Iran’s true intentions and purposes, it will seek bargaining leverage in the talks by driving wedges between the various P5+1 participants, seeking to generate tensions among its negotiating adversaries while maintaining a tight diplomatic unity of its own. This is diplomacy at its most elementary level, and Iran’s leaders are known to practice the arts of diplomacy at a far higher level than that.

Reality #6: Hence, a bargaining coherence within the P5+1 will be crucial to success. As Obama and his top officials contemplate the forthcoming talks, they can assume a number of things about the group’s internal dynamics. First, Germany and Britain will play their traditional role of going along but providing little leadership in steering the contingent toward the kind of hard-line stances that will be necessary to extract needed concessions from Iran. China, fixated on its own economic interests and need for oil, won’t be particularly helpful, though it likely will take pains to avoid being publicly isolated on such a high-profile issue. And France likely will be doing a bit of a flip-flop—from the firm, hard-line leadership of outgoing French president Nicolas Sarkozy to a likely more accommodative and soft approach from his successor, Francois Hollande.

Reality #7: That leaves Russia, which might be coaxed into playing a significant role in bringing other P5+1 participants into line with America’s diplomatic aims. Some foreign-affairs watchers believe Russia has become increasingly concerned about a nuclear-armed Iran and perhaps more willing to act accordingly as the talks unfold. But Russian leaders also have developed a skepticism toward American diplomacy, fueled largely by feelings that stated U.S. aims in Libya in 2011 turned out to be cover for larger, unstated aims. That was one reason Russia, along with China, on two occasions last year vetoed UN Security Council resolutions threatening sanctions against Syria because of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s mass killing of civilian protesters.