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Would Russia Sabotage Diplomacy With Iran?

Roger Cohen repeats [1] a very strange assumption:

But, some say, a firm response will end Russian cooperation on vital issues like Iran. Not so: Russia has its own interest in stopping nuclear proliferation [bold mine-DL], and even the Cold War did not preclude cooperation in some areas.

It’s possible that Russia won’t subvert negotiations with Iran in retaliation for sanctions over Ukraine, but it is still impressive how ready so many people in the West are to believe that inflicting punishment on Moscow won’t produce undesirable results on other issues. We should certainly hope that tensions over Ukraine don’t poison cooperation with Russia in other important areas, but it seems to me that this is the sort of thing that the administration is telling people to make punitive measures seem less risky than they are. Bear in mind that the administration officials that assure us [2] that Russia has its own reasons for cooperating on Iran also think that recent Russian actions in Ukraine aren’t in Russia’s interest. In other words, Moscow has already acted in ways that the White House believes to be inconsistent with Russian interests, and that suggests that the administration may not be the best guides to understanding what the Russian government currently perceives its interests to be. It is very convenient for advocates of sanctions to argue that a punitive approach won’t jeopardize U.S. goals elsewhere, but that doesn’t make it true.

The assumption is that Russia has as much reason to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran as anyone else, but we should also remember that Moscow has been much less alarmed by Iran’s nuclear program than Western governments are. Russia may not want Iran to have nuclear weapons, but it seems much less worried that Iran is likely to acquire them. The other argument is that Russia doesn’t want to sabotage diplomacy with Iran because that would make U.S. military action more likely, but it’s not so obvious that it would greatly harm Russian interests if the U.S. and Iran couldn’t resolve the nuclear issue peacefully. Russia benefits in some ways from ongoing U.S.-Iranian hostility, and it is not harmed if the U.S. ends up waging yet another war in the Near East. The administration takes for granted that diplomacy with Iran won’t be undermined by sanctioning Russia, but this seems to be a case of believing that the U.S. doesn’t have to make a trade-off between its desire to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and its goal of reaching a comprehensive agreement with Iran. The latter is presumably more important to the administration, so we should assume that Russia will extract a price for its continued cooperation.

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15 Comments To "Would Russia Sabotage Diplomacy With Iran?"

#1 Comment By TomB On March 21, 2014 @ 1:47 am

Well, isn’t the realpolitik reality that there’s damn good arguments that Russia would *indeed* benefit from “sabotaging” (an unfairly loaded term) diplomacy with Iran? An argument Russia could certainly buy into *especially* if pushed hard enough?

I.e., in terms of its own worries about Iranian proliferation, what *better* than to stop also playing one of the heavies and let the U.S. and the rest of the P5 do the heavy lifting alone?

And if that means the U.S. starts bombing Iran, more’s the better: Russia still gets relieved from seeing Iran get the bomb, it can still in the future get crosswise with Iran trying to prevent same if that proves necessary, and what could be more delicious than to see the U.S. and the West once again plunge themselves lip-deep into a hate campaign with the moslems?

Just *think* of all the ways Russia could benefit from all that, not least in making zillions by helping Iran evade any pre-or-post bombing economic or other sanctions; help it rebuild to some degree from any U.S./Israeli bombing; make all kinds of long-term deals with Iran and combine their petro-power; and etc., etc.

Hell, if I were Putin I’d feel like I’d have a pretty damn strong hand to play against any too much Western sanctions for the Crimea business. First thing I’d do in fact is let it leak that suddenly Russia seems to be helping Iran evade some of the already-existing sanctions upon it already. Then deny it with a smile, but let the possibility hang there.

I.e., of *course* the hawks are going to downplay Russia’s willingness to make Iran more difficult. And don’t forget, for the real uber-hawks, they may well even by *liking* the idea by seeing that it makes it more likely that the U.S. has to bomb Iran.

#2 Comment By Michael N Moore On March 21, 2014 @ 6:31 am

How interesting! The NeoCon project to expand NATO into Eastern Europe seems to have dovetailed nicely with their support of the Israeli project to attack Iran. Make Russia paranoid and they stop helping on a Iranian-American agreement.

#3 Comment By Labropotes On March 21, 2014 @ 8:26 am

Cohen has already won his principal argument by assuming it. Iran is not a vital issue but it’s vital to Cohen that we believe it is, so like Maureen Dowd on Mitt’s rooftop dog, Cohen chants his mantra at us. Distracting with the silliness about what Russia would do, he slips his point home.

If Putin, in playing chess, is given the chance of entangling his opponents pieces with those on another chess board entirely, he’ll jump at it.

#4 Comment By Traveler On March 21, 2014 @ 9:56 am

Completely misses the real points behind the sanctions. What brought Iran to the table, and will keep it there, are the financial sanctions. Such access to capital and banking in the west is not controlled by Russia.
Since the invasion, the Russian index has dropped some 15% and bond yields are pushing 10%. Russia is now completely frozen out of the capital markets. Moody’s etc. downgraded Russia to negative. So you think Iran would hitch its wagon to that horse?
The only real lever Russia has is to offer to sell the S-300 AA missile technology. If that happens, Iran will be then be frozen out forever, as will Russia. So not much of a card either.
Putin has totally miscalculated. Watch for an EU buyer’s cartel to emerge for his gas. Those stocks just dropped 5% with mere prospect of sanctions. Gonna be a tough economy for rest of us, absolutely miserable for Russia, and for a long time.

#5 Comment By Mightypeon On March 21, 2014 @ 10:17 am

Well yeah, and lets not get started about selling Iran Weapons that would make attacking it pretty costly.

Even if Iran gets nukes, these would counterbalance mainly Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States. Russian crocidle tears incoming now.

#6 Comment By Cliff On March 21, 2014 @ 11:00 am

What I’m wondering this morning is whether some bright boy or girl in DC might suggest that Obama do a Nixon and “play the Iran card” against Russia. That opens up a can of worms! Would Iran bite? Did China? They took the bait but they never allied themselves with us against the Soviet Union. And would Russia try to outbid Washington? That’s the sort of thing that happened in the Old Cold War — no reason to rule it out of the new one our rulers are creating. And would detente with Iran survive Hillary?

It’s just a thought to play with…

#7 Comment By Robert G On March 21, 2014 @ 11:06 am

So what is the alternative? Do nothing? Let Russia feast on Crimea as first course and then move on Eastern Ukraine as the main course? We cannot do anything because Russia (meaning Czar Vlad) might get upset and not help on Iran? Russia has clearly violated all international norms and stupidly one might say. And yes, I know the contradiction with our misadventure in Iraq … but that does not make what Russia did OK. Americans have long realized that Iraq (and Afghanistan) was a blunder of epic proportions as Tsar Vlad will no doubt realize with his misadventure in Ukraine.

Iran is a separate matter and one cannot be naive that Russia (even without the Crimean fiasco) would act in anything other than its own narrow interests. Russia and Tsar Vlad are not overly concerned about the common good.

There is a world view where the U.S. withdraws inward, dismantles its armies and defense infrastructure, and leaves the world to its own devices no matter who invades whom. There are persuasive arguments in favor of that approach. Such a world would obviously be a lot more dangerous (including for a diminished U.S.). But that might be fine for some people versus Pax Americana. However the view that given where we are today if we did not retaliate (however modestly) again Russia, then it would make Russia more amenable to our interests in Iran, which would make an Iranian conflict less likely sounds a tad ridiculous.

#8 Comment By Labropotes On March 21, 2014 @ 11:11 am

Traveler, another lever is the more than 5 million barrels of oil Europe buys from Russia every day, which China will gladly build pipes through Pipelinistan to buy.


#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 21, 2014 @ 12:08 pm

“So what is the alternative? Do nothing? Let Russia feast on Crimea as first course and then move on Eastern Ukraine as the main course?”

If what you say and do amount to nothing that buffers toward the end you desire – it may be a good idea to say and do just that nothing.

I think beyond stating some objection – it is highly unlikely that sanctions or anything short of military confrontation is going to yield the results one want.

Looming in the background that we are and the Europeans are in no small manner part and parcel for the for precipitous events — threats, sanctions are inclined to ring hollow.

#10 Comment By James Canning On March 21, 2014 @ 12:42 pm

I think Russia will continue to support a deal between P5+1 and Iran. The unpredictability of any new war in the Middle East, and the resultant dangers, is not something Sergei Lavrov fails to perceive.

#11 Comment By Andrew On March 21, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

@Robert G

Iran is a separate matter and one cannot be naive that Russia (even without the Crimean fiasco) would act in anything other than its own narrow interests. Russia and Tsar Vlad are not overly concerned about the common good.

1. In the theaters near you (nothing personal against you–I just use your post) from the creators of then “reset” (or “overload”) button. Vlad is short for Vladislav not Vladimir. Short for Vladimir (who is Putin) is Volodya, Vova, Vovik, Vovchik, Vovan etc. No relation with Vlad whatsoever. Nor does Putin fit any analogy with Count Dracula.

2. “Narrow interest” is what really drives history and always did. Acting on broad interests, whatever that might be, could be a very tiresome and futile business. So, in terms of Iran, Russia, most likely, will start to do simplest geopolitical and economic bookkeeping–debit, credit. The only question which comes up here immediately is: what benefits did Russia reap in her cooperation with United States for the last 20+ years? The answer seems quite obvious. As for Europe, I don’t know. The other question about Iran should be: what benefits will Russia get in letting Iran slightly closer to herself. That is a tricky question but ramifications of Iran getting closer to Russia will be far reaching.

#12 Comment By Ken Ward On March 21, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

Cohen’s columns on Putin have become tedious. At least the NYT’s other two horsemen of the Ukrainian apocalypse, Friedman and Kristof, have moved on to other issues after showing their impressive uniformity of views on Putin. Displaying the polyglot skills of his old world origins, Cohen now tells us that ‘Anschluss’ means annexation in German. Let’s hope that certified Hitler-hunter Hillary has heard this. No doubt when Israel annexed the Golan Heights, Cohen penned a column to tell his readers what the Hebrew word for annex was. Writing ‘Anschluss’ then might have been a little dicey, n’est-ce pas, Roger?

#13 Comment By Traveler On March 22, 2014 @ 12:12 pm

Labropotes, I was talking about the levers that the US wields upon Iran, vs. those that Russia wields. The former are far more meaningful to Iran.

EU oil shipments are not germane to these levers, but an interesting topic nonetheless. While oil is quite fungible, it does look quite difficult for the EU to wean itself off the Russian teat, as EU’s main market is Russia (supported by oil and gas sales to EU). [4]
So even if they were to replace Russian oil with Saudi oil, the hurt on Russia would bounce back on them.

#14 Comment By James Canning On March 22, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

@Ken Ward – – Good post. And Israel purports to have “annexed” the Golan Heights. But came close to a deal with Syria in 2008, to get out.

#15 Comment By Fran Macadam On March 23, 2014 @ 12:43 pm

Russia was an obstacle with its meddling peacemaking in the Middle East, jamming up the war making gears that had started spinning. Then, too, they were the only country that could offer Snowden protection after his devastating revelations about domestic wholesale spying. Something had to be done to discredit those pesky Russkies, threaten them with loss of their important naval base by fomenting a coup, then demonize them when they moved to protect it. Vlad takes his shirt off and flexes his pecs but is that homophobe against gay marriage really an overcompensating girly-man? On to Damascus and Tehran!