The Obama administration's announcement last month that it was scrapping plans to build missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic removed a prime irritant in the U.S.-Russian relationship; Russians felt the missile defense network was targeted as much at them as against the purported threat, Iran. And the move appeared at first to pay dividends. Days later, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Russia might support sanctions against Iran, a significant shift in policy and a concession to the United States.
But Washington's hopes took a hit last week. First, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to walk back that shift, saying, "Threats, sanctions, and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive." Visiting China the next day, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called talk of sanctions against Iran "premature." The snub was sharper because Lavrov's comments came shortly after he met Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Moscow, where she had traveled to discuss a host of issues, including Iran, with Russian leaders. Russian media reported that Michael McFaul, a National Security Council expert on Russia who accompanied Clinton, said the United States would back off of criticism of Moscow's human rights record, another annoyance to Russia.
While Medvedev reportedly reiterated his position on Iranian sanctions privately to Clinton, it appears that the U.S. overtures have yet to bear fruit. "Whatever you want to call the Russian relationship with Iran—a partnership, a friendship, a marriage of convenience—whatever it is, the decision on the missile defense system in Europe has not made a major dent in it," says Alex Vatanka, senior Middle East analyst at Jane's Information Group.
Russia's relationship with Iran is complex, especially regarding the nuclear issue. Russia is deeply involved in Iran's nuclear power program, building a controversial reactor at Bushehr. And geopolitically, it sees Iran as a useful foil against the United States. But Russia has as much to lose from a nuclear-armed Iran as the United States does. Just as Washington is worried about an emboldened Tehran exerting increased influence in the Persian Gulf and the Levant, Moscow is uneasy about the same thing in Central Asia, a historic source of Russian-Iranian tension.
The difference between Russia and the United States, Vatanka says, is in the assessment of Iran's nuclear intentions. Russia has much greater access to information in Iran from diplomatic, commercial, and governmental contacts. "President Obama doesn't go and see the supreme leader of Iran. Putin does. Yeltsin did. And that might make the difference," he says. "The Russians are not blind to [Iran's nuclear potential], but they don't feel that the urgency is there, that there is an immediate threat."
Last week the U.S. and Russia did agree on something. The two countries, along with France, officially endorsed a U.N. plan to reduce Iran's stockpiles of uranium. Iran has yet to endorse the plan which could ease fears around the globe.
Sanctions are still a sticking point but at the end of Clinton's visit, Russian officials put a positive face on the apparent differences of opinion, with Lavrov saying sanctions were not impossible. "Sanctions become inevitable when absolutely all political and diplomatic means are exhausted," he said. But the key is at what point those means are exhausted. On that question, Washington and Moscow still seem as far apart as ever.
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