The long-awaited signal that Moscow was starting to cooperate with Washington's push for sanctions on Iran came from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who said Thursday the world should offer incentives to help Iran make the "right decision" on nuclear weapons. That was the first step forward.
"Our task is to maintain a system of incentives allowing Iran to use peaceful nuclear energy, but we will not allow the creation of nuclear weapons," Medvedev said. Second step forward.
What does Russia want for it to go that extra step?
Russia wants America to repeal Bush-era policies. It wants an end to Cold War terms like missile shields and NATO expansion. They already got rid of the missile shield nuisance. Moscow really hates the idea of NATO expansion, and it wants it reversed. Russia also wants progress on reduction of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
In compensation for cooperating on Iran sanctions, Russia wants alternate markets for its nuclear and gas energy products, as well as its military industries. This is a tall order, but there are opportunities for the West to tempt Moscow. According to AP, the worldwide economic downturn has hit Russia's oil and gas exports; the Kremlin is looking at foreign investors to help with its huge untapped resources.
Russia is pursuing a resurgent nationalist policy against America and an energy race against China. Russia, a big energy exporter, and China, a big energy consumer, are reaching out for each other's markets and suppliers.
In geopolitics, Russia wants to be included in driving policy; it doesn't want to be relegated to the back seat, it wants to hold part of the wheel. Obama made a first move towards Russia by repealing Bush's European missile shield, and in return, got Medvedev's two steps forward.
But from China, he got a step backward.
"We believe that sanctions and exerting pressure are not the way to solve problems and are not conducive for the current diplomatic efforts on the Iran nuclear issue," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
China has good reasons to oppose sanctions on Iran. The Chinese economy is growing at a 9% annual clip. It needs energy to sustain this growth, and to this end has signed multi-billion dollar energy deals with Iran that will span several years.
If it is to be persuaded to vote in favor of sanctions on Iran - or even abstain - and abandon its deals with Iran, China will need a replacement energy supplier.
That's where Saudi Arabia comes in. The Saudis could step in and provide China with some of their energy needs, and Riyadh certainly has an interest in weakening Teheran.
China competes with the US on a global scale. It sees its competition as a zero-sum game: Whatever China wins, America loses, and vice versa.
If the negotiations slated to begin October 1 between Western powers and Iran over Teheran's nuclear program fail to produce the desired result - Iran abandoning enrichment on its soil and agreeing to vigorous inspections - by the December deadline, America may feel justified in moving forward with tougher sanctions.
At that stage the US can turn to Russia and China and say: "Look, we've given it our best shot and its time to try something different."
That's when Russia and China are going to have to do their cost-benefit analysis. Do they want a nuclear Iran or not?
In the end, Russia's and China's borders with Iran are much closer than America's or Israel's. Russia shares a direct border with Iran, and China and Iran are separated by a group of Muslim states whose loyalties are still up for grabs.
Moscow and Beijing are the ones who are going to have to deal with a potentially aggressive, nuclear-armed Iran destabilizing their border areas, or even potentially riling up Muslim minorities within Russia and China, or Muslim communities adjacent to their borders.
There are millions of Muslims within Russia and China, and millions of Muslims on the borders of Russia and China. Beijing and Moscow need to keep that in mind.
The feeling in Jerusalem is that the October talks cannot be allowed to drag out longer than a few months at most, as Iran is steadily marching towards nuclear-weapons capability. Iran will, as always, be playing for time.
The assessment in Israel is that sanctions have a good chance of convincing Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program if they are hard enough, and targeted at Iran's oil refining capacity.
According to this assessment, if Russia comes on board a new sanctions regime, China is likely to follow, as it doesn't want to be left alone if the major powers align against Iran.
For more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog Forecast Highs
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