Hillary Clinton, her elbow healed up, finally made it to Moscow, only to be rebuffed by her Russian counterpart in her push for stricter sanctions against Iran. Getting from nyet to da in Russia on this issue will be difficult. It was fascinating to see how much every party involved backpedaled on their bargaining positions. But the Russians won this hand of high-stakes poker.
Let's recap. First, Dmitri Medvedev, perhaps smitten by the Steel City or by Obama's charisma or plan to dismantle a proposed missile shield in Central Europe, blurted out he would not be opposed to sanctions against Iran—OK, in fairness he said that sanctions are sometimes “inevitable”—after it was disclosed that it was operating a secret uranium-enrichment facility. Fast-forward a few weeks and his foreign minister said it was opposed to sanctions and the threat of sanctions.
Second, the Iranians. I think they were genuinely surprised and worried by the Russians’ harsh reaction after the G-20 summit. They quickly capitulated, by allowing international monitors to inspect the Qom reactor and agreeing to ship its low-enriched uranium to Russia, something they had balked at a few years back.
Finally, the Americans. After pushing for another round of sanctions against Iran, and trying to get the Russians onboard, they basically said, Well, OK, if you’re not going to endorse a sanctions regime, can you at least not oppose it in the Security Council? We’ve seen this kind of back-pedaling by the Obama administration before (see Israeli settlements). But it is also realistic, given the levers at our disposal. To paraphrase what Obama’s predecessor presciently said: We are sanctioned out in Iran. In other words, we have nothing else we can do to exact behavioral change. But Russia does $3 billion in trade, sells Iran air-defense systems, and is heavily involved in developing its energy sector. Sanctions backed by Russia could actually cripple Iran’s economy.
Trouble is, no matter what Medvedev blurts out, Russia will never get behind a new round of sanctions. First, it is against sanctions in principle as a lever of forcing behavioral change in international relations (perhaps fearing sanctions against itself at some later date). But more importantly, it has no interest in seeing the Iran conflict resolved (In fact, I would add Iran to Moscow’s long list of “frozen conflicts” like Nagorno Karabakh or Trans Dnistre, which it would like to keep simmering for its own geo-economic interests). Were Iran to open itself up to the West and wriggle itself free of sanctions, Europe would have another energy supplier, which could cut into Russia’s profits. Finally, there is the status issue. Russia sees itself as a major power broker, an equal of the United States on matters of peace and security in the Middle East. A resolution of the Iran dilemma would remove an issue on which it has quite a lot of influence. While Russia does not wish Iran to become a nuclear power anytime soon, it also does not view a nuclear Iran as threatening or as imminent as the Americans or Israelis do.
For the time being, expect a “nyet” from Russia when it comes to getting tough on Iran.