The key to Iran: Leveraging Russian fear

Obama’s conciliatory Russian policy is paving the way for a new Cuban Missile Crisis.

November 22, 2011 16:13
4 minute read.
Obama and Medvedev at press conference

Obama and Medvedev 521. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published a report concluding that Iran's nuclear program is not solely intended for peaceful purposes. To the contrary, the report states: "While some of the activities identified... have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons." We are now in a new and dangerous phase of Iran’s confrontation with the West.

Iran, a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has denied these allegations for years and remains defiant in the face of the IAEA report, predictably arguing it is based upon "fabrications" provided by the Mossad and the CIA. Tragically, just as predictable was Russia's response, which blatantly attacked not only the substance of the IAEA report, but also undermined the very legitimacy of the IAEA as an institution. Russia's Foreign Ministry officially declared that the IAEA report presented no new facts and that it "had a set goal to deliver a guilty verdict."

Russian intransigence with respect to Iran is nothing new. Given its veto power on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its vital role in placing effective sanctions on Iran, it is time US President Barack Obama revisits his conciliatory "reset" approach to US-Russian relations. 

Russia is still caught up in the Cold-War mindset of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as the primary stabilizing force between itself and the US - a relationship viewed by many within the Russian government as being fraught with mistrust when it comes to military matters. This has been demonstrated in no clearer way than with respect to American/NATO missile defense activities in Eastern Europe. Russia has vociferously opposed any missile defense plan in Eastern Europe that does not include intimate Russian collaboration. In short, Russia fears an erosion of its deterrence capability. 

Even though Obama abandoned the far more robust missile defense shield initiated under former president George W. Bush, Russia is still threatening the US with a new arms race if the US proceeds according to Obama's extremely watered down and, some would say, insufficient plan; a plan that has soured US relations with both Poland and the Czech Republic, both of which played integral roles under the Bush plan. 

The missile defense system proposed by the US and NATO is specifically designed to intercept short and medium-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran, and is incapable of shooting down the much longer range Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles that are housed deep inside Russian territory.

To persuade Moscow that the system poses no threat, the US has invited Russia to participate in missile defense flight tests and has offered limited data sharing and coordination with the Russian military.

Obama’s pliancy regarding missile defense, and his deference to irrational and outdated Russian fears, is especially ludicrous when considering Russia’s obstinate position on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Russia’s untenable policy is to stand in the way of international efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran but to cry foul as America and its allies act to defend themselves from that same Iranian threat. 

The US's position should be clear: Without Russia's cooperation in the UNSC to halt Iran's nuclear-weapons program through tighter economic sanctions aimed at targeting Iran's central bank and the oil sector, the US will justifiably be forced to re-examine its missile defense options in the European theater. For its own part, NATO should also apply pressure by threatening to expedite its expansion close to the Russian border through Georgia and Ukraine. As Russia allows the Iranian missile threat to grow, so should grow the US's ability to defend itself and her allies from an Iranian attack without concern for Russia's support or cooperation.

It will take tough measures to sway Russia's crucial UNSC vote. Russia has strong trade ties with Iran, building the Islamic state’s first nuclear installation. Also working against the US is the fact that Russia provides vital overland supply links for NATO forces in Afghanistan, a privilege it could withdraw at any time. And while China usually follows Russia's lead on the UNSC, there is no guarantee that US leverage with Russia will have any effect on China's decision whether to veto a new round of sanctions against the Iranian regime. 

At this crucial time, when the Israeli war drums grow louder with each passing day and the possibility of a costly regional war looms overhead, America must take a stronger stance with Russia. Obama’s conciliatory, carrot-only Russian policy is paving the way for this generation’s Cuban Missile Crisis; a bloodcurdling thought, given the apocalyptic and fanatical mullah-cracy currently presiding over Iran.

The writer is Assistant Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his J.D. from Georgetown University and his M.A. in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. 

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