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The Race for Iran


We have periodically taken stock of Turkey’s rising importance as a player in Middle East politics and “The Race For Iran”.  Charlie Rose has continued his series of interviews with important Middle Eastern leaders (including Syrian President Bashar al Assad and Hamas political chief Khalid Mishal) with a new interview of Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan.  Click to view the interview, here.

–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett




The Obama Administration’s determination simultaneously to inflict “pain” on the Taliban and on Iran to force both parties to negotiating tables on American terms will backfire.  It will, in fact, accelerate Afghanistan’s descent into renewed civil war—with a regional “proxy” war between Iran, on the one hand, and Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, on the other, added on.  

Last week, in announcing General Stanley McChrystal’s replacement as senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan by General David Petraeus, President Obama assured the American people that “this is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy”.  As Senate confirmation hearings for Petraeus’ new appointment convene Tuesday, that is precisely what should worry the American people, for current policy is setting the stage for a resumption of full-scale civil war in Afghanistan—recreating the conditions under which Al-Qa’ida first established a safe-haven there in the 1990s. 

As America positions itself to begin withdrawing forces from Afghanistan next year, reality is slowly but inexorably forcing the Obama Administration to accommodate Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s drive for a political deal with the Taliban and its principal external backers, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.  But, in the political and security vacuum that is today’s Afghanistan, Karzai’s effort is, as The New York Times reported Sunday, generating deep unease among leaders of the country’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara communities. 

Together, these communities comprise 45 percent of Afghanistan’s population—slightly higher than the Pashtuns’ 42 percent—and were the base for the so-called Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban in a civil war that raged from 1989 until the U.S. invasion in 2001.  Already, the leadership of these non-Pashtun communities—who also dominate the upper echelons of the Afghan military—are organizing to resist, by force, any serious attempt at power-sharing between Karzai’s government and the Taliban.       

A power-sharing arrangement including the Taliban is the only remotely plausible, stable political outcome in the medium-to-long term.  But, if General Petraeus’ appointment indeed represents a change in personnel but not in policy, then a replay of Afghanistan’s civil war along previously established lines will become increasingly likely, for two reasons. 

First, the Obama Administration continues to impose rigid conditions on the inclusion of Taliban elements in a political process—including renunciation of violence and acceptance of Afghanistan’s current constitution (including Western-inspired provisions on women’s rights).  Both the intent behind and the effect of these conditions is to exclude the Taliban’s most important leaders and constituencies.  This dooms the pursuit of a political settlement to failure.   

Second, the Obama Administration asserts it can compel the Taliban’s eventual participation in a political process on U.S. terms by imposing higher levels of military pressure (including “collateral damage” to a substantial number of Afghan civilians).  But, as U.S. military activity in Afghanistan escalates, the Taliban’s standing increases and popular resentment of what is increasingly perceived as a U.S. occupation grows.   

The only way for the United States to facilitate a prospectively stable power-sharing agreement is by dropping unrealistic “red lines” for Taliban participation and pursuing a genuinely regional strategy for Afghanistan’s stabilization.  Such a strategy would balance inclusion of the Taliban, backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, by simultaneously including the Taliban’s antagonists, backed by their external supporters.  These supporters include Russia, India, and—here is the catch, as far as Washington is concerned—Iran. 

Like the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara militias that it supported for years as parts of the Northern Alliance, Iran resists power-sharing with the Taliban, for three reasons.  First, the Taliban have traditionally persecuted Iran’s Afghan allies—especially the Shi’a Hazara—and have even murdered Iranian diplomats.  Second, Tehran sees the Taliban as a pawn for the expansion of Pakistani and Saudi influence in Afghanistan—a threatening scenario, from Iran’s perspective.  Third, our conversations with Iranian policymakers indicate they are deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions in Afghanistan and increasingly doubtful about America’s strategic and tactical competence there.  As a senior Iranian official asked us earlier this year, “If America wants to make a deal with the Taliban, why did it invade Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban in the first place?”    

Following 9/11, Iran worked with the United States on the short-term project of overthrowing the Taliban—with a long-term goal of prompting Washington to reconsider its hostile posture toward the Islamic Republic.  Under current circumstances, Iran would need to be persuaded to cooperate once again with the United States in Afghanistan—persuaded, in particular, that power-sharing could be done in a manner that addressed Tehran’s longstanding concerns about the Taliban, the regional balance of power, and U.S. intentions toward the Islamic Republic. 

This cannot be done while Washington is pursuing sanctions against Iran—however feckless they may be—and offering progressively less veiled support for regime change in Tehran (as opposed to Afghanistan).  Absent a strategic understanding between Washington and Tehran, the Islamic Republic will support its Afghan allies in resisting a Taliban onslaught backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–making Afghanistan’s renewed civil war a proxy conflict among regional powers as well.

Initially, some thought that Obama’s appointment of Richard Holbrooke as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan was a positive step.  Holbrooke had pursued a regional strategy to broker an internal power-sharing arrangement for Bosnia that was enshrined in the Dayton accords.  In his first months as Obama’s envoy, Holbrooke was, as one State Department official put it, “desperate” to engage Iran.  But, as the Obama Administration has turned away from even the pretense of interest in serious bargaining with Tehran, Holbrooke has gone with the flow.  And, even before returning to government service in 2009, Holbrooke had damaged his credibility as a potential interlocutor with Tehran as a founder of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a hawkish non-governmental initiative that supports further sanctions against Iran and publicly pressures Western companies to terminate their business ties to the Islamic Republic.  (Obama’s principal adviser on Iran at the National Security Council, Dennis Ross, was also a founder of UANI.)   

Success in Afghanistan—or even avoiding catastrophic failure there—requires more than a new general.  It requires a political strategy that recognizes and works with the integral connections between Afghanistan’s internal balance of power and the broader balance of power among major states in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia. 

–by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah will come to Washington for a meeting with President Obama on Tuesday; there is little doubt that Iran will be a high-priority topic for discussion between the two leaders.  Notwithstanding the extraordinary importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, it is striking how relatively few meetings there are between American presidents and Saudi kings.  We can also testify, from our own experience in government, how poorly prepared those meetings often are on the American side. 

The most glaring example of this, in our experience, was the first encounter between Abdullah and President George W. Bush, at Bush’s Crawford, TX ranch in April 2002.  (At the time, Abdullah was still Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, but was acting in his capacity as the Kingdom’s de facto regent, a role he had discharged since King Fahd’s incapacitation in 1995.)  Despite warnings from everyone in the U.S. government who knew anything about Saudi Arabia that Abdullah was coming to press President Bush over the Palestinian issue and the Bush Administration’s dismissive initial reaction to the Saudi peace initiative, then-national security adviser Condoleeza Rice confidently asserted that Abdullah would do no such thing.  The result, in Crawford, was what one cabinet principal in attendance described later as a “near death experience”, with Abdullah on the verge of walking out of the meeting early.  Our understanding is that President Obama’s meeting with King Abdullah in June 2009 was not a significant improvement on this paradigm.      

Looking ahead to Tuesday, we are grateful that Thomas Lippman agreed to write a preview of the meeting between President Obama and King Abdullah for www.TheRaceForIran.com, and are pleased to publish his piece below.  Tom is currently adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, see here.  He had a distinguished 30-year career at the Washington Post, where he was, among other things, a diplomatic and national security correspondent, the oil correspondent, and Middle East bureau chief.  He is the author of several books, including the highly acclaimed Inside the Mirage:  America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia, see here.    

From Thomas W. Lippman: 

It would have seemed peculiar if King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia traveled all the way to Toronto for the G-20 economic summit and did not stop in Washington on his way home.  After all, President Obama made a point of stopping in Riyadh to see the king last June before going to Cairo for his famous speech about U.S. relations with the Muslim world and Abdullah has not visited the United States since Obama was inaugurated.  The United States and Saudi Arabia have deep and durable relations in matters of security and trade, and each is in its own way indispensable to the other.

Still, it is hard to imagine that the White House session on Tuesday will produce any game-changing agreements because while the two countries generally share the same strategic objectives, each wants something that the other is unable or unwilling to deliver.

The Saudis want the United States to find some way short of war to halt Iran’s nuclear program, and they want Obama to deliver on his commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine question.  The United States wants Saudi Arabia to do more—much more—to support Iraq, but the Saudis have made clear their reluctance to do that until a government to their liking, preferably led by Iyad Allawi, is installed in Baghdad.

At many past bilateral summits, the agenda included items on which prompt and visible action was possible—on oil production levels, for example, or defense of the kingdom against a possible invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, or arms sales, or a crackdown on Islamic charities sending money out of Saudi Arabia to recipients of malign intent.  That pattern extends back to the first such meeting, in 1945, between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, which among other things resulted in a Saudi declaration of war against the Axis powers. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, at his final meeting with Abdullah, committed the United States to support Saudi Arabia’s long-term plans to develop nuclear energy. 

No such definitive agreement appears likely this time.

According to American officials, the most important subject on the agenda is the faltering effort to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians based on the two-state solution.  Obama has repeatedly stated a commitment to that objective—most recently after a meeting earlier this month with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—and for a while after the Cairo speech the Saudis believed he would actually make something happen.  They no longer believe, because in their view Obama backed down in the face of Israeli intransigence on his demand for a complete halt in settlement activity in the occupied territories. 

They still prefer Obama to his predecessor, but their impatience and disillusionment were readily apparent in conversations with officials and analysts in Riyadh has month.  The dissatisfaction was reflected in a stinging speech delivered to an audience of diplomats and journalists by Prince Turki Al Faisal, former ambassador to the United States, who said the United States has forfeited the “moral high ground” in the Middle East through “negligence, ignorance and arrogance.”

Turki said that if no agreement on the Palestine issue is reached by this fall, the United States should recognize an independent Palestinian state, just as it recognized an independent Jewish state in 1948, and leave Palestine and its neighbors to sort out their relations with Israel on their own. 

Prince Turki holds no government position and it is not clear whether he was speaking for the government, but it is no secret that the king is in despair over the plight of the Palestinians, a sentiment augmented by the Gaza flotilla fiasco. 

Obama’s relations with Abdullah got off to a rocky start in their Riyadh meeting a year ago when a poorly-briefed president asked the king for unilateral gestures of goodwill toward Israel, such as extending to Israeli aircraft the right to fly over Saudi air space.  As was predictable, the king rebuffed the president; the Saudi position is that they crafted and persuaded the Arab League to endorse a comprehensive peace offer based on Israel’s return to its pre-1967 borders, and have no obligation to do more. 

This time, according to U.S. officials, Obama is prepared to tell the king that he accepts the so-called Abdullah plan as a good faith offer that can be part of the negotiations with Israel.  That is not an endorsement of the plan’s details, but it could be enough to persuade Abdullah to give the U.S. side what it will ask for: a public statement endorsing direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  Given the Saudis’ cynicism about the “peace process,” that could be a useful symbolic gesture. 

On Iran, the Saudis are like the Americans in that they know what they want but do not know how to achieve it.  They want the Iranians to stop meddling in Iraq, stop supporting extremist groups and, most important, stop enriching uranium.  They do not believe the latest round of economic sanctions will deter Iran, but they oppose military action by the United States—or, worse yet, Israel—to halt the nuclear program.  Any such attack, they fear, would cause chaos in the Gulf and prompt Iran to strike at them as a way of inflicting pain on the United States. 

Saudi Arabia did not oppose the latest U.N. sanctions—Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal even went to Beijing to urge China to support them.  But after a meeting in February with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Prince Saud said that “sanctions are a long term solution, but we see the issue in the shorter term, maybe because we are closer to the threats than that. So we need immediate resolution rather than gradual resolution in this regard.” 

He did not specify what “immediate resolution” he had in mind.  Nor could he have done so because, according to Saudi officials I talked to in Riyadh last month, no one has devised any “immediate resolution” short of the war the Saudis don’t want.

One gesture Obama could offer would be an endorsement of Saudi Arabia’s call for the creation of Middle East zone free of all weapons of mass destruction.  The Saudis have long held that position and restated it at Obama’s recent nuclear security summit, and were furious when Secretary Clinton dismissed it as not timely.  The tricky question for the president would be how to endorse the Saudi proposal without appearing critical of Israel, which has long had an undeclared nuclear arsenal.



The U.S. Congress, in its infinite wisdom, passed a new piece of legislation authorizing the President to impose so-called “secondary” sanctions against third-country entities doing various sorts of business in the Islamic Republic.  Since 1996, American law has authorized the imposition of secondary sanctions against non-U.S. companies investing in the development of Iran’s hydrocarbon resources or in pipeline projects to export those resources.  (No U.S. administration has ever imposed such sanctions, but that is another story.)  In the new bill, Congress has, among other things, expanded the range of business activities by third-country entities that are potentially “sanctionable” by the United States; the new categories include selling refined petroleum products (e.g., gasoline) to Iran and helping Iran develop its own capacity to produce refined petroleum products. 

Earlier this week, The Washington Post published an excellent story explaining the futility of gasoline sanctions against Iran, which can be read here

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett



Russian President Dmitry Medvedev meets today with President Obama in the Oval Office, in advance of the two leaders’ participation in the G7/8 and G20 summits in Canada this coming weekend.  Iran will undoubtedly be an important topic on the agenda for Medvedev’s meeting with Obama.  Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates described Russian policy toward Iran as “schizophrenic” (see, here).  As we noted then, rather than describing Russia’s Iran policy as “schizophrenic”, we see Russia’s Iran policy as an ongoing attempt by decision-makers in Moscow to balance among multiple interests vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic.  But the way in which Russia strikes this balance has shifted in some significant ways over the last year or so.  As a result, Iranian policymakers and analysts are re-evaluating the benefits and difficulties of the Islamic Republic’s relationship with Russia.  All of this reinforces the enormous strategic opportunity that the United States has vis-à-vis Iran—but, unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Obama Administration understands this or is prepared to act on it.   

Russia’s Iran policy 

Since the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, the Islamic Republic has worked hard to cultivate a strategic partnership with post-Soviet Russia.  Of course, for many Iranians, there is heavy historical “baggage” attached to relations with Russia/the Soviet Union.  But, from an Iranian perspective, Russia is the “great power” that has been most intent on finding ways to counter-balance American hegemony in the post-Cold War world—an important strategic consideration given ongoing U.S. hostility toward the Islamic Republic. 

From a Russian perspective, Iran has been a market for sales of conventional weaponry (though never as large as some other markets for Russian arms, such as China and India) and civil nuclear technology (epitomized in Russia’s role at Bushehr).  Iran has also been a constructive partner for Russia on regional security issues in Central and South Asia, taking what could be described as “pro-Russian” positions on a number of regional conflicts (e.g., Tajikistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Afghanistan) since the early days of the post-Cold War period. 

In addition, Russia has sought to present itself as a potential partner in the development of Iran’s energy resources.  In 1997, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom became one of the first foreign energy companies to invest in the development of the massive South Pars gas field (in a joint venture with Total and Petronas).  After Vladimir Putin became President of the Russian Federation in 2001, Gazprom and the Islamic Republic’s Ministry of Petroleum formed a joint committee to “coordinate” Iranian gas exports with Russia.  The Russian government provided early political support for a planned gas pipeline from Iran to Pakistan and India, while Gazprom offered technical support and even indicated its willingness to help finance the project.   

Just a few years ago, Iranian-Russian relations seemed to be headed toward even closer strategic cooperation.  (For example, in what seemed at the time an important symbolic statement, in 2007 Putin became the first non-Muslim head of state or government to be received by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.)  But, since Dmitry Medvedev replaced Putin as President of the Russian Federation in 2008 (with Putin becoming Prime Minister), the limits on Russia’s willingness to act in strategic partnership with the Islamic Republic have become increasingly apparent. 

It has become clear, for example, that Moscow’s willingness to support Iran’s emergence as a gas exporter is ultimately conditioned by Russia’s own position as the world’s leading producer and exporter of natural gas—a position which, among other things, gives Russia an especially strong interest in forestalling direct competition with prospective Iranian gas exports to European energy markets, where Gazprom is established as the leading foreign gas supplier. 

More broadly, Moscow’s still compelling need to balance its interest in closer ties to Tehran against other important foreign policy interests—including relations with Washington—has regularly frustrated Iranian efforts to maximize the strategic and economic gains from cooperation with Russia.  Over the last 20 years, Russia has been willing on a number of occasions to curtail its arms exports to Iran in exchange for concessions from the United States.  Likewise, in response to American pressure/blandishments, Russia stepped back from commitments to provide the Islamic Republic with uranium enrichment and reprocessing technologies.   

Russia’s foreign policy “balancing act” is also reflected in its approach to the Iranian nuclear issue.  Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Russian leaders have been intent on constraining a unilateral resort to force against Iranian nuclear targets by the United States (or Israel).  To this end, Moscow has a strong interest in keeping the Iranian nuclear issue in the United Nations Security Council—where Russia, as a permanent member, has considerable influence—rather than having the United States deal with the issue primarily through an ad hoc “coalition of the willing” or “coalition of the like-minded” that would almost certainly not include Russia.  For this reason, Moscow has never been prepared to use its veto to give Iran “blanket” protection from Security Council sanctions.  Instead, on four occasions—most recently this month—Russia has supported resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, while also working diplomatically to water down the measures actually authorized and ensure that nothing in these resolutions could be plausibly construed by Washington as authorizing the use of force. 

In this regard, it seems doubtful that Russia genuinely wants to see a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue, which would almost certainly go hand in hand with a substantial measure of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.  While Russia clearly opposes U.S. (or Israeli) military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets, Moscow has never pushed Washington to offer Tehran more fulsome security guarantees or other strategic incentives that could facilitate productive nuclear discussions—even though Russian diplomats believe that such offers are essential for diplomatic progress.  As Russian diplomats have explained to us, Washington’s failure to pursue effective diplomacy with Tehran creates a “workable paradigm” for Russia:  the United States may engage just enough to forestall a destabilizing military confrontation with Iran, but not enough to achieve real rapprochement—which could, among other things, undermine Moscow’s strategic value to Tehran and unleash Iranian gas to compete directly with Russian gas exports, in Europe and elsewhere. 

To the extent that Moscow has proposed specific solutions to the nuclear issue since 2003, these solutions have emphasized Iranian participation in multilateral fuel-cycle centers—centers that would be based, conveniently enough, in Russia.  Russia’s support for the October 2009 “Baradei” proposal regarding international arrangements to refuel the Tehran Research Reactor was similarly self-serving:  the proposal would have given Russia an enhanced role in providing “value-added” nuclear products while simultaneously circumscribing the development of Iran’s indigenous fuel-cycle capabilities. 

Re-evaluating Iran’s approach to Russia 

Iranian policymakers and analysts are, of course, well aware of these dynamics.  A number of recent developments in Russia’s Iran policy—e.g., Moscow’s willingness to move ahead with a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran even after Brazil and Turkey had brokered a similar fuel-swap deal in Tehran, Russian officials’ vacillation on the prospective transfer of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, etc.—appear to be prompting a re-evaluation of the Islamic Republic’s posture toward Russia. 

In this regard, we were struck by a recent interview on Iranian-Russian relations with Kayhan Barzegar, as reported in several Iranian news outlets; see here, here, and here.  Kayhan is a brilliant scholar and foreign policy analyst who is currently on the faculty at Iran’s Islamic Azad University; he is also a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Research and the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies (both in Tehran) and maintains an affiliation with the Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.  (We have previously highlighted some of Kayhan’s work on the nuclear issue, see here and on Iranian views of the regional balance of power in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, see here on www.TheRaceForIran.com.)  Kayhan’s observations about Iranian-Russian relations are certainly worthy of consideration on their own merits, but they may also offer a window into current discussions and thinking about Russia in Iranian foreign policy circles.     

Kayhan focuses on the different perspectives of President Medvedev and his advisers, on the one hand, and elements in Russia’s national security apparatus (the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, the National Security Council) and Putin, on the other, regarding relations with Iran.  In his view, Medvedev and elites around him believe that an essential condition for maintaining power is the success of Russia’s economy.  This requires closer relations with the United States and the West, which incentivizes Russian leaders to accept at least some of the demands that Washington and its allies have put to Moscow, including with regard to Iran’s nuclear program.  By drawing closer to the West, these leaders can improve Russia’s “economic and strategic reach” to the world. 

This line of analysis certainly seems plausible, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis.  Just this week, Igor Sechin—Putin’s former right-hand man at the Kremlin, chairman of Rosneft, and a leading figure among the siloviki (former Soviet intelligence officers who assumed a dominant role in the reassertion of state influence over Russia’s economy during Putin’s presidency) told The Financial Times that “the [global financial] crisis exposed the vulnerabilities of the Russian economy in its dependence on certain types of raw materials.  This cannot help but concern us”. 

Last month, we met with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov—a close Putin ally—during his visit to Washington; among other things, Ivanov was clearly pleased by the Obama Administration’s decision to revive the “123” nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, which could set up Russia for significant new international business opportunities in the civil nuclear arena.  (This agreement had been concluded while George W. Bush was in the White House, but then mothballed after Russia sent troops into Georgia.) 

In a special supplement to The Washington Post prepared by Rossiyskaya Gazeta and published today, the strategic context for Medvedev’s trip to the United States this week is described very candidly: 

“It is unusual for Medvedev to make the nation’s capital his second stop on a trip.  His first stop this week is San Francisco, and more precisely, Silicon Valley.  Medvedev is to meet with leading American entrepreneurs interested in opening or expanding business with Russia.  And for the first time in this relationship, we may see a focus on technological cooperation rather than investment in oil and gas.  His travel plans reflect the essence of his main agenda, namely innovative and technological breakthroughs for the Russian economy and reduced dependence on fossil fuel, in order to catch up with the developed world. 

There are no significant obstacles for such an agenda.  First, the current U.S. administration declares a “pragmatic” approach in world affairs.  This means it is no longer a priority to irritate Moscow over sensitive issues, such as human rights or democratic values, which were among the favorite topics of the previous administration.  Second, Obama’s administration pays less attention to the post-Soviet neighbors…A change in focus on these issues has helped the United States create a more workable relationship with Russia and eliminate the excessive passion that characterized the previous decade…the greatest evidence for this approach was demonstrated very recently when the United Nations Security Council voted for a new resolution enacting tougher sanctions against Iran, which the United States had long discussed with China and Russia.  Russia may now expect something in return and, considering Medvedev’s agenda, this might be an appeal for better economic cooperation, particularly in technologies.” 

So, for the time being, Russia seems to need the United States more, and—given that “the Obama administration pays less attention to the post-Soviet neighbors”—to need Iran a little bit less.  Of course, Russia retains a significant interest in preserving cooperative ties to Iran.  Iranian diplomats have said that, after a public exchange of critical remarks by senior Russian and Iranian officials in May 2010, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, took a conciliatory tone in a telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.  Putin and other Russian officials have also publicly reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to bring the Bushehr nuclear power plant on line later this year. 

Likewise, the Islamic Republic retains an interest in preserving the most productive relationship with Russia that it can.  As Barzegar points out, there is still a “logic” of “mutual need” between the two countries.  Russia remains an important strategic actor and a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power; moreover, Iran has a continued interest in cooperation with Russia on nuclear energy and access to advanced defensive weapons.  In this regard, an Iranian parliamentarian who sits on the majlis’s national security committee said earlier this week that “Russia and China actually voted (for the sanctions) out of empathy…Foreign Ministry officials have talked with Russian officials and believe that these two countries voted (in this manner) to prevent more severe action against Iran”.  (In the immediate aftermath of the sanctions vote, some parliamentarians had called for a reassessment of Iranian relations with Russia and China; it would seem that these calls are being decisively rebutted.)          

But the structural limits of Russian willingness to cooperate strategically with Iran have been underscored.  As Barzegar notes, the interest of much of the Russian elite in establishing a truly independent national strategy and global position for Russia is a “long-term” goal.  Barzegar also notes that Russia—like the other veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council—felt “threatened” by the Joint Declaration which Brazil and Turkey negotiated with Iran last month.  This is an extremely important observation, in our view. 

Russia’s willingness to move ahead in the Security Council with sanctions reflected, at least in part, its interests in defending what Russian elites see as their country’s “great power” prerogatives.  Russian officials were uncomfortable with the Iran-Turkey-Brazil deal not on substantive terms, but because the Joint Declaration represented a potential weakening of the political monopoly that the recognized nuclear weapons states—which also happen to be the five permanent members of the Security Council—exercise with regard to what are described in the United Nations Charter as matters of “international peace and security”.

The Russian position on the nuclear issue underscores a bigger reality:  Moscow is fundamentally uneasy about the Islamic Republic’s emergence as a genuine regional power on the borders of the Russian Federation and other parts of what Russian officials still describe as the “post-Soviet space”.  Gates’ claim that Putin, while still President of the Russian Federation, told him that Iran is the single biggest security threat facing Russia—even if accurately reported—surely reflects a deliberate exaggeration on Putin’s part.  Nevertheless, both Putin and Medvedev seem to like having the Islamic Republic kept “in a box”.

Because of these constraints, Barzegar argues that Russia (and China) are, at best, “short term solutions” for Iran, because these countries accept the rules and order of the existing international system, which largely benefit American interests.  (For a fuller statement of Barzegar’s views on China, see here

While we believe that China is becoming, over time, a more substantial strategic option for the Islamic Republic (certainly more substantial than Russia), Kayhan’s argument reinforces an important theme in our analysis:  a critical mass of Iranian political and policymaking elites, cutting across the Islamic Republic’s factional spectrum, continues to recognize that their country has basic national security and foreign policy needs which can only be met—or, only optimally met—through rapprochement with the United States. 

To be sure, Iranian leaders (including the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei) evidence deep skepticism about U.S. intentions regarding the Islamic Republic—an understandable posture, given the history of U.S. policy toward Iran and Tehran’s frustrating experience with attempts at outreach to the United States.  Political and policymaking elites in Washington who insist that it is incumbent on Iranian leaders to make, up front, substantial concessions addressing U.S. concerns in order to demonstrate their bona fides about engagement will not accomplish anything positive through such insistence.  (Given the historical track record and the imbalance in military capabilities between Iran and the United States, Iranian leaders need to know, up front, that Washington is serious about a genuine realignment of U.S.-Iranian relations, and is prepared to treat the Islamic Republic with respect as a fully sovereign state.) 

As President Medvedev arrives in Washington, it would be a waste for the Obama Administration to view the difficulties in Iranian-Russian relations primarily as an opening to bargain for a few more tactical concessions from Moscow on Iran-related issues.  Instead, President Obama and his senior advisers should view these difficulties as further confirmation of the real strategic opportunity that rapprochement with the Islamic Republic would represent for the United States.     

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett