US Affairs: Iran on their minds

It's not just a fraying bilateral relationship that could complicate America's Iran policy.

Condoleezza Rice 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Condoleezza Rice 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Since the Olympics began two weeks ago, the United States has accumulated an impressive tally of gold medals and high marks. But on the geopolitical stage during the same stretch, it suffered considerable losses, as Russia rolled into and over its ally, Georgia, while American-backed Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf was forced out of the presidency. On Wednesday, though, the US tried to salvage its losses with a small victory, signing a long-sought deal to set up a missile defense system in Poland. The stalled negotiations between the two countries rapidly came to a conclusion, as Poland and the US, chastened by Russia's actions in Georgia, wanted to shore up their security cooperation. Now, 10 missile defense interceptors will be placed 180 kilometers from the Russian border, while in connection with the agreement, the US will man a Patriot missile battery. The move has infuriated Russia, which has portrayed it as a challenge to Russian's nuclear arsenal, despite America's strenuous disagreement. "This is a system that is defensive and is not aimed at anyone," Rice declared, as the deal was wrapped up in Warsaw Wednesday. "It is nonetheless a system that establishes firmly, again, and reaffirms the strategic cooperation, relationship and friendship between Poland and the United States." But while it might not be aimed at anyone, it certainly is intended to send a message to someone, and not just the Russians. As with so many diplomatic maneuvers these days, though, the threat of Iran underlies it. "This is an agreement that, of course, will establish a missile defense site here in Poland - a missile defense site that will help us to deal with the new threat to the 21st century of long-range missile threats from countries like Iran," Rice said. However, according to Paul Saunders, executive director of Washington's Nixon Center, though the deal might be aimed at blunting Iran, it will make things harder for the US to succeed in its efforts to curtail Iran's nuclear program. "In signing the agreement, it just draws further attention to that disagreement [between the US and Russia]. Unfortunately it's going to make it much more difficult to cooperate on Iran," he said. AND IT'S not just a fraying bilateral relationship that could complicate America's Iran policy. The actions of Russia and Pakistan, according to Council on Foreign Relations adjunct senior fellow Vali Nasr, are "suggestive of a precipitous decline in American influence and power that the Iranians will take note of." He described Russia and Pakistan as long dissatisfied by the governments America has nurtured in their neighborhoods, and that now that they are "beginning to balk" at the American order, "the impunity and the boldness with which they're doing it is a bad reflection on American respect and influence." He continued, "It suggests you have no respect for American power at this point in time, and in an environment where America is trying to marshal international support around critical issues, this is not a good statement." The response to the situation in Georgia, which has included calls for international mediation but no military action, "highlights the fact that the Europeans are divided, the fact that there are some differences between the US and Europe, the fact that the US has a lot of military obligations elsewhere," explained Saunders. The last point, he said, reduces the likelihood of an American strike on Iran, because it points out how difficult and unlikely a course of action that is; the former are needed for the next round of international sanctions now being contemplated by the UN. In addition to the primacy that the issue lost in international headlines once the Georgian hostilities began, Saunders said the resulting tensions "makes it exceedingly unlikely that they'll be additional pressure from the UN Security Council any time soon as a result of the sharp disagreements between the United States and Russia." But Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from the recent events. "There was very little prospect that Russia was going to take a strong new view on sanctions on Iran," Cordesman assessed. Similarly, he said, the relationship with Pakistan was far from rosy to begin with. "It's certainly not clear that Musharraf was any kind of ally, or what the US has lost." He urged against "rushing to judgment" on events that were still unfolding. And in fact, while Nasr felt the unfolding incidents favored Iran in the short term, he calculated that the long-term impact could be quite to the contrary. A destabilized Pakistan and resurging Taliban could spell trouble for neighboring Iran, just as the "southward march of Russia" could threaten Iran, too. That, Nasr suggested, could create some opportunities, including an Iranian calculation that the US and Europe share some key interests. This, though, would be a matter for international diplomacy, which has yet to convince Russia or Pakistan to see eye-to-eye with the West. There have, however, been several proposals on using further diplomacy to press Russia to change its ways. Among them: kick Russia out of the G-8; oppose its World Trade Organization membership; and revoke the awarding of the 2014 Olympic games to Russia's Sochi, just 32 miles from the scene of conflict with Georgia. That might allow the US a geopolitical triumph of Olympic proportions.