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Russia And Iran

Philip Klein asks the question that Obama’s critics were inevitably going to ask:

So President Obama agreed to negotiate with the Iranians, and he agreed to abandon a missile shield in Eastern Europe. What did he get for all this good will? Bubkes, it turns out.

Klein’s post is entitled, “Russia thwarts Obama on Iran,” which sounds dramatic until you realize that it is about as newsworthy as “sun rises in the east.” It is also a little strange to describe the maintenance of Russia’s long-standing position on sanctions as an effort to “thwart” anyone in particular. As I said when the missile shield decision came down and in the days that followed, it would not do any good to portray the decision as a concession to Russia aimed at “getting” something on pressuring Iran:

If the administration insists that Russian support for tightening sanctions or isolating Iran is the “payoff” for abandoning the shield, the decision will be judged to have been a quid pro quo that gained us nothing. If we see it instead not as a concession to Moscow, but rather as a concession to reality and common sense, it does not have to produce Russian cooperation on Iran’s nuclear program to be regarded as the correct and appropriate move.

I warned enthusiastic administration supporters not to make too much of minor statements coming from the Kremlin:

Andrew and Zakaria are also attaching far too much importance to Russian statements on Iran. Zakaria called recent Kremlin statements a “striking shift,” but there has been no shift, and while Andrew is more skeptical he has cited Medvedev’s remark about inevitable sanctions as if it meant something. Like the administration they are praising, they are holding out unrealistic hopes of Russian cooperation on an issue where this cooperation is not going to be forthcoming. The administration and its supporters are setting themselves up for a fall, and they open themselves to the jeers of an otherwise hapless opposition that Moscow has played Obama for a fool. Russian cooperation may be forthcoming in other areas, and repairing relations with Moscow might yield some desirable results, but to measure the success of Obama’s Russia policy by Moscow’s willingness to do something it has no intention of doing is to rig the game in favor of the hawks who preach confrontation and aggression.

Moscow has no interest in pressuring or isolating Iran, which was clear all along. This is not a problem in Russian policy towards Iran, but draws attention to the flaws in our Iran policy. We insist on stopping something that we do not have the means to stop, and we are defining our relationship with Iran according to whether or not Iran ceases doing something it is never going to cease doing. We then compound this mistake by making the quality of our relationship with Russia dependent on whether or not Russia will cooperate in our dead-end Iran policy.

It also happens to be true that harsher sanctions on Iran would be “counterproductive” in several ways. If the sanctions are designed to hamper Iran’s nuclear program, they will instead show Iran that it needs a deterrent all the more. If they are aimed at aiding internal political opposition and weakening the regime, they will have the opposite effect. Unless the goal is to secure Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in their positions of power and accelerate the advance of Iran’s nuclear program, sanctions would seem to make no sense at all. If Russian opposition to sanctions helps us realize the futility of such an approach that much sooner, so much the better for us.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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