The Three Rs: Rivalry, Russia, 'Ran

January 2, 2008 Topic: Security Regions: RussiaPersian GulfEurasiaMiddle East Tags: Diplomacy

The Three Rs: Rivalry, Russia, 'Ran

Mini Teaser: If we want to calm Iran's nuclear ambitions, we're going to need to brush up on our diplomatic basics.

by Author(s): Robert D. Blackwill


Year after year the worriers and fretters would come to me with awful predictions of the outbreak of war. I denied it each time. I was only wrong twice.

-Senior British intelligence official, retiring in 1950 after 47 years of service

Man's most enduring stupidity is forgetting what he is trying to do.

-Friedrich Nietzsche


WE ARE witnessing a systemic decline in Russia's relations with the West. There is a long list of complaints from the industrial democracies regarding Moscow's behavior, many of them justified. But the U.S.-Russia relationship (and that of Europe and Russia) does not occur in a strategic vacuum. Many of Russia's contemporary offenses pale before what should be the West's highest policy priority in the period ahead: Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. According to a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on December 3, 2007, it will be difficult to convince Tehran to forego the eventual development of nuclear weapons and Iran could produce sufficient quantities of highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon as early as 2010.

Before we can assess Russia's relationship with the West, including on the question of Iran, we should first examine the international context in which those relations will occur. This allows us to address the fundamental question: How important is Russia's cooperation in the next several years on issues clearly most connected to American and allied vital national interests?

Henry Kissinger recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal interview that the international structure that we have known for 300 years-the Westphalian system that arose after Europe's wars of religion and is based on the nation-state-is collapsing. The transforming effects of globalism and information technology, the rise of Asia, the relative decline of Europe's international influence, the surge of radical Islam and the increasing importance of non-state actors are together producing a new world order/disorder.

The increase in China's power and influence is now a permanent and critical feature of the global picture, and it is still far from clear whether Beijing will become a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Relations between China and Japan are edgy at best. We will have to see whether North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons. I remain skeptical. The long-term trends in Afghanistan are not good. Pakistan, with dozens of nuclear weapons, is vibrating with uncertainty.

The region that is most immediately pivotal to the security of the West-the Middle East-is violent and unsteady. A possible war between the United States and Iran lies ominously on the horizon, if somewhat postponed, according to the latest NIE. Iraq remains gripped in a destructive and bloody domestic political deadlock that prevents reconciliation and stability. Prospects for substantial progress in the Middle East peace process are grim. Lebanon teeters on the brink of chaos. Syria pursues corrosive policies throughout the area. Six years after 9/11, jihadi extremism and the terrorism it spawns are growing, not receding, in most of the region.

In short and as the Soviets used to say, the correlation of forces in the Greater Middle East is moving against the West. Many of our friends are confused and demoralized, and most of our enemies are emboldened-nearly everywhere in the region. Hizballah's successful resistance to the Israeli Defense Forces in July 2006 in Lebanon was a strategic setback for moderate forces, both Western and Arab. Most important, it again demonstrated that force of arms-the machinery of modern combined air and ground warfare-can be thwarted or at least neutralized by radical Muslim paramilitary forces; a lesson not only learned by Hizballah but also internalized by Hamas, the Mahdi Army and other Shi‘a militias, and the Taliban.


ALL THIS obviously represents a perilous situation for the United States and its allies. It is certainly the most hazardous period in the region for the West at least since the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the possibility of U.S.-Soviet armed conflict. And it is exacerbated by the rapid rise of Iran, now the second-most powerful and influential country in the Greater Middle East after the United States and the most important foreign power operating in Iraq south of Baghdad.

Not only is Iran the rising nation in the area, it seems determined to keep open the possibility of pursuing a nuclear-weapons program. This is a function of a centuries-long ambition to acquire the attributes of a great power and to reclaim Persia's ancient position as the hegemon of the region. (As one Middle East leader recently said to me, "Think Darius as well as the Mullahs.") So far, international pressure to persuade or coerce Iran into suspending its enrichment program as required by the UN Security Council has been ineffective. At this writing, there appears to be no progress on the issue in talks between EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the Iranian negotiating team, especially after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared on October 23, 2007 that "Iran will not retreat one iota." And it appears unlikely that currently discussed UNSC, ad hoc or U.S. unilateral sanctions, which would take years to make a decisive difference, will be strong enough to force Iran to freeze its nuclear enrichment program, especially given that Tehran is now cushioned from the effect of such relatively weak sanctions by an oil price of $80-plus a barrel. As Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) has written, "I do not see how the collective actions that we are taking will produce the results that we seek. . . ."

If Iran stays on its current pace of development, it could be approaching a point of technical mastery of large-scale enrichment by the end of 2009. This could provide Iran an irrevocable capability to produce nuclear weapons, even if it had not completed weaponization.

Let me be very clear. President Bush and Secretary Rice are deeply committed to trying to solve this problem with Iran through multilateral diplomacy. They understand that multilateralism, which in the past was regarded by some as only a diplomatic alternative for the United States, has now become a compelling foreign-policy requirement. They genuinely seek to avoid a binary choice by an American president either to attack Iran or to acquiesce to Iran's possession of nuclear weapons. However, at present there is no evidence that this matter can be successfully resolved, including through unconditional bilateral negotiations with Iran, which I support. (Among other things, I do not see how the United States could attack another country with whom we have refused to have face-to-face talks to try to avoid the conflict.) Mao once advised his cadres during the Chinese civil war to "Talk, talk-Fight, fight." The Iranian version of this for the period ahead is clearly, "Talk, talk-Enrich, enrich." Only rigorously severe sanctions would have any chance of changing Tehran's policy in this regard. As the NIE states, "Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran's decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs" and that "Iran may be more vulnerable to influence on the issue than we judged previously." However, thus far the potential costs to Iran of retaining its nuclear-weapons option have been far too feeble to lead Tehran to change course.

If, despite the West's best efforts, diplomacy fails and the United States attacks Iran's nuclear facilities, Tehran would respond with a variety of countermeasures against the United States and any nation that was seen to be assisting it-both in the region and in the world at large, including probably in the American homeland. This would be a long war, likely lasting for years, since Iran would not surrender. It would inflame the entire Islamic world, strengthen terrorist forces everywhere and, given the projected meteoric rise in oil prices, could well trigger a global recession. As columnist Anne Applebaum observed in The Washington Post, "International support would be minimal, fury maximal, diplomatic consequences appalling."

Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would have devastating strategic consequences for the West for decades. This is why a prominent Asian leader and strategist told me recently, "If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will change the world." And a Middle East monarch noted, "If the United States attacks Iran, there will be serious trouble in the region for 18 months. If Iran gets nuclear weapons, there will be serious trouble in the region for thirty years and beyond." Should Iran go nuclear, how many Sunni Arab regimes would follow suit and who believes that in a Middle East with multiple nuclear-weapons states, we would not eventually have a nuclear catastrophe in that region, in a Western city or both? As Henry Kissinger stressed on the Charlie Rose show, "In this situation some use of nuclear weapons is almost inevitable."


IF WE ARE to avoid either of these horrific outcomes, Russia will have to play a central and positive role. We are unlikely to succeed without Moscow. It has a closer relationship with Iran than any nation in the West; trust is too strong a word, but Russia-Iran relations are generally good. It has more influence in Tehran on this issue than any other country. It has a long-time civil-nuclear relationship with Iran, which gives it unique access to the Iranian nuclear elite. Thus, its potential to importantly affect Tehran's calculations is probably greater than the combined efforts of Europe and the United States. And, most important, Russia must agree if the Security Council is to adopt severe economic sanctions that would have the unambiguous force of international law and might alter Iran's future nuclear choices.

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