The cancellation of the sale of the S-300 air-defense system by Russia to Iran, on the eve of President Dmitri Medvedev’s visit to Washington for his summit with President Obama, is a clear signal that the strategy of offering the Kremlin concrete incentives rather than vague assurances of goodwill is more likely to produce results. It is also a test, however, of U.S. willingness to continue to reciprocate.
Medvedev hopes to leave Washington with a firm commitment that there will be no congressional veto of the proposed civil-nuclear agreement between the two countries—which should pave the way for contracts that would more than compensate for any interruption of commercial ties between Moscow and Tehran, relations now already under strain because of Russia’s decision to back a U.S.-proposed sanctions resolution. That step was, in turn, facilitated by the Obama administration lifting sanctions that had been imposed on several Russian firms for previous dealings with Iran.
The Obama team deserves credit for its willingness to change the dynamics of the U.S.-Russia relationship, particularly the tone of the dialogue, and for its recognition of the need to incentivize support for American goals. But the diplomatic efforts of other states—and their willingness to also engage the Kremlin even when strongly criticized by some elements of the political establishment in the United States—should also be acknowledged.
In particular, the “gamble” that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has taken has been critical. Sarkozy, who has been a proponent of much stronger action against Iran, made it clear that his support of Russian energy projects, his willingness to consider a greater Russian role in European security and his allowance of the sale of weapons technologies like the Mistral ship platform were based, to some extent, on the expectation that Moscow, in turn, would accommodate French priorities. I do not believe that it was accidental that the first hints that the S-300 sale to Iran would be terminated occurred during the meetings last week between Sarkozy and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Of course, it is also important to note that the Russian arms industry may not take a bath on the S-300s after all. While there was speculation for several months that Saudi Arabia or the Gulf emirates might purchase the system in place of Iran, now there are reports that Turkey is interested in acquiring the missiles that would have been intended for Tehran’s use. If Russia does not have to write off the sale, then there is no reason for Rosoboronexport—one of the most powerful state companies in the country—to insist that it is forsaking cold, hard cash for a presidential gamble that cancellation of the Iranian contracts will generate a new round of U.S. investments.
Nicolas Sarkozy, and now Barack Obama, seem to have embraced the James Baker strategy of making it “worth the while” of the Russian government to change its position on Iran. Because what Paris and Washington have offered could end up benefiting some of the major economic stakeholders—the oil and gas sector, the nuclear industry and the military-industrial complex—we may see a continuing shift in Russian policy toward Iran.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.