If you are at all uneasy about the direction in which Russia is now heading, this OpEd by John Vinocur that explores Russian obstructionism in helping to curb Iran's nuclear program will only reinforce those concerns....
Monday, September 10, 2007
WASHINGTON: Suppose the Russians, as Iran's monopoly supplier of nuclear wherewithal, decided they could live with a few atomic weapons in the hands of the mullahs.
Suppose the Russians, flush with money and superpower fantasies, believed that weakening and humiliating the United States was well worth the instability that might come with Moscow's refusal to help block Iran's drive toward nuclear arms.
Where's the downside? From Vladimir Putin's point of view, it's win-win.
With Russia's obstructive tactics encouraging Iran to plunge ahead, he may figure the Americans will eventually strike Iranian nuclear installations. The Yanks would harvest opprobrium in much of the world.
Still, if their strike does eradicate the Iranian nuclear program, that's fine, too. Russia's oil and gas prices are sure to shoot up. Russia becomes Iran's key reconstruction contractor, and sets out a rare claim to international righteousness.
What's irrational about the above scenario? Or its counterpart, which is that Russian now calculates the United States in the end will sit on its hands concerning Iran?
Nothing. Multiple versions of them get discussed within the Bush Administration, all stamped, Non Whacko.
It's exemplary of the misery of the American situation.
On one hand, the Administration sticks to the notion - recall, please, George W. Bush's magnanimous first-term reading of Putin's soul in his KGB eyes - that somehow, someday, but in the nick of time, the Russians are going to come around to joining an international effort to halt Iran's nuclear drive.
On the other hand, important areas of the administration are offering a hardened assessment of what Russia ultimately wants.
After a couple of years of talking about how Putin's richer Russia (reasonably) craved respect, a senior administration policymaker, in a private conversation, now asserts the "overwhelming evidence" is a Russia that seeks to weaken the United States. Wherever possible internationally, he says, Moscow will work to stop America from achieving success.
The hitch is that concerning Iran, these two administration notions, expecting good from Russia while regarding it as a gathering, noxious force, are contradictory to the point of incompatibility.
The summer showed just how much.
In June, the Americans said they expected a United Nations Security Council resolution in July that would add a new round of modest sanctions to those already in effect against Iran. It never happened. The Russians, with Chinese assistance, sidetracked the measure.
Reality now says the United Nations is not going to be the place where Iran's nuclear dreams die.
Almost in the same stride, the Russians in July used the threat of a Security Council veto to dismantle an American-backed motion on Kosovo's independence.
The combined effect is not only an American defeat. It's a demonstration that, unlike in the Cold War, there are no clear limits on how far this Russia feels it can push this America.
Forget the grandiloquence of Moscow's planting flags in the Arctic and re-establishing world-wide strategic bomber patrols.
But as the United States flails in Iraq, and faces a financial crisis that may affect command-economies and authoritarian regimes less than democracies, why shouldn't Russia see the Iran issue as a strategic hole for achieving a new global status?
After all, Jacques Chirac, whose vision of a multipolar world consigning America to the role of everyone's opponent gets applause in Moscow, argued in his last months as French president that a few Iranian nukes shouldn't cause much lost sleep for anyone sharing his take on a remade global hierarchy.
Chirac didn't say it, but he could have rationalized that a limited number of atomic weapons at Iran's disposal would be a reasonable price to pay for disabling an American world order that he, like Putin, reviles.
It's a reflection of America's current incapacities that Nicolas Sarkozy, who might have interesting notions of Putin's calculations from Élysée Palace files, two weeks ago detailed the Iran situation in a tougher and more concise way than Washington.
Sarkozy knows that some Westerners who have talked directly to Putin have been told that Russia does not want a nuclear-armed Iran. He also knows the deceit of Russia's official position that it has no evidence indicating Iran's nuclear activities are anything but peaceful.
Draw this conclusion: If Sarkozy has been informed that Putin will act to halt Iran's drive short of a bomb, then he would not be calling the prospect of Iranian atomic bomb capability the world's biggest menace.
There are, on good evidence, officials within the Bush administration frustrated by its own bollixed approach - hoping that the Russians will turn responsible after their "elections" next year while acknowledging Moscow is now in full confrontational mode. Assume they could only leap to praise Sarkozy for saying in a speech a couple of weeks ago what Bush would not:
If sanctions fail, the alternatives are an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran. As for Russia, Sarko described its behavior as marked by a "certain brutality."
The sanctions Sarkozy is talking about are hard, new measures outside the United Nations that would probably involve an ad hoc group including the United States, Britain, France and Japan at its core.
This approach specifically means forgetting about the Security Council, and giving up on Russia, barring sudden and unlikely cooperation. The sanctions have to be so penalizing, obviously disadvantaging Western banks and industry, to become truly dissuasive. This requires real resolve.
It also requires the underpinning of a tacit yet palpable threat: if these measures don't work, there's real unpleasantness to come. With a phrase, Sarkozy marked out the Iranian choice with a sharper edge than the Americans have.
That's a significant advance.
But unless Bush first gets publicly tougher on Russia as Iran's protector and international obstructionist, the mullahs may take America's insistence on skirting this reality as the surest sign they can get that they're home free.