Moscow holds the line on Iran sanctions
By M K Bhadrakumar
Following an hour-long meeting in New York on Wednesday with Russian President
Dmitry Medvedev, United States President Barack Obama said the two leaders
"spent the bulk of our time talking about Iran". Indeed, this was exactly what
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs had anticipated.
On the other hand, Medvedev said the leaders "discussed a range of issues" and
"devoted lots of our time to the Iranian problem". This was also the advance
projection given by the Kremlin press secretary Natalya Timakova, who said the
Russian side viewed the New York meeting as "an important 'checkpoint' after
the July summit in Moscow" and the talks would "most likely promote the
settlement of disputed issues" regarding a new arms reduction agreement.
The shift in emphasis conveys much. Clearly, the American
objective when the US administration initiated the request for Wednesday's
meeting was that Obama would make a last-ditch attempt to persuade his Russian
counterpart to agree to a harder line on Iran. The "Iran-Six" engages Tehran's
chief nuclear negotiator at Geneva on October 1. The six are the five permanent
members of the UN Security Council - the US, Russia, China, France, Britain -
The Russian side saw Obama's demarche coming but viewed it as a useful
opportunity to push the agenda of the drafting of a new arms reduction treaty
by the December 5 deadline. As a Moscow commentator put it, "It is a complex
foreign policy formula with a large number of variables." Moscow pitched high
by proposing that Russia and the US should agree to cut their nuclear weapons
to 1,500-1,675 charges and 500 delivery vehicles. But the Pentagon has been
resisting Obama's plans to reduce nuclear weapons. The US is estimated to have
at present 2,600 strategic nuclear warheads on combat duty, another 2,500 in
reserve, and 4,000 more waiting to be dismantled.
For the Russians, the issue was how Medvedev could help the US president carry
forward his disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation agenda. Equally, pressure
was on the Russian side to reciprocate Obama's recent decision to drop the
deployment of anti-missile systems in Central Europe.
Russian opinion-makers generally kept their fingers crossed, skeptical whether
Medvedev would compromise on any US move to tighten sanctions against Iran at
this juncture. An influential voice in the Russian strategic community, Sergei
Karaganov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, forewarned not to
expect anything very much. "The US, of course, has a right to hope for various
compromises on this issue, but I do not think Russia will make them. We are not
interested in spoiling relations with the rising power of the region [meaning
Iran]. Breakthroughs cannot be expected yet," he said.
In the event, following Wednesday's talks, Medvedev said, "Sanctions rarely
lead to productive results. But in some cases sanctions are inevitable."
Interestingly, he added, "Finally, it is a matter of choice. We're prepared to
continue and to work together with the US administration both on an Iranian
peaceful program and on other matters." (Emphasis added.)
Medvedev underscored his satisfaction over witnessing "very positive changes in
our relations, with established, constructive, friendly working relations" that
allow Russia and America to tackle difficult global issues. The Russian
expectations indeed are very high. Obama, on the other hand, cherry-picked the
Medvedev bends a little ...
The talks did result in an agreement to meet the deadline to get a new
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty agreement that "substantially reduces" nuclear
missiles and launchers by the end of the year. That is a net gain for Medvedev
as he returns to Moscow. But Moscow needs to weigh in that Obama is a
beleaguered president. He reportedly had to send back the Pentagon's first
draft of the Nuclear Posture Review as being too timid and demand a range of
more far-reaching options that enabled him to move forward with Moscow on his
agenda of nuclear arms cuts, the non-proliferation regime and normalization of
relations with Russia.
For Russia, the bottom line is that the arms reduction process is an "essential
element of the 'restart' in our relations with the United States", as Medvedev
said. There is a linkage with the Iran problem insofar as the journey involves
proceeding from a radical disarmament by the two nuclear superpowers toward
wider global efforts to prevent further nuclear proliferation. (A nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference is due on May 4-15 and the clock is
Taking into account Obama's growing difficulties with his overall strategy,
Moscow will be inclined to help the US president who is increasingly in a
corner in domestic politics, to undertake the disarmament policy. It is in
Moscow's interests to do so, too. Quite clearly, despite the range of
reservations regarding Obama's proposals on the European anti-ballistic missile
system that have been voiced by Russian commentators in the past week, Moscow
has not only not rejected them but Medvedev conspicuously hailed Obama's
Following the New York meeting, Obama highlighted that the common ground with
Medvedev with regard to Iran would have the following elements:
Iran's right to pursue peaceful energy sources cannot be questioned but it
should not pursue nuclear weapons.
The Iran problem should be resolved diplomatically.
The US is committed to negotiating with Iran in a "serious fashion".
If Iran does not respond to serious negotiations to resolve the issue of
meeting its commitment not to develop nuclear weapons, additional sanctions
remain a possibility.
Medvedev approached the issue from a different angle, while in agreement with
what the US president outlined:
The endeavor should be to create such a system of "incentives" that allows Iran
to resolve its fissile nuclear program and prevents Iran from making nuclear
Russia and the US should, therefore, as two nuclear superpowers send "great
signals" (meaning set an example on the disarmament front).
The approach should be to "help Iran to take a right decision".
In principle, sanctions rarely need to productive results but may become
unavoidable in some cases.
Russia hopes to work with the US on the Iran issue within an overall framework
of bilateral relationship.
... and Beijing steadies him
It will be helpful to recall that 10 days ago, during an interview with the
CNN, Medvedev fleshed out the Russian thinking. First, he said "Iran needs a
set of motives to behave appropriately" on the nuclear program. Second, the
objective should be to ensure that Iran cooperated with the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for developing its nuclear energy program. Third,
the international community should create a "system of positive motives" for
Iran to cooperate with the IAEA, and "Iran should be pushed to cooperate".
Fourth, contrary to what Washington might feel, the Iranian package of
September 9 indeed offered a basis to negotiate. Fifth, any additional
sanctions should be the last resort. "Yes, of course, we should encourage Iran,
but before taking any action we should be absolutely confident that we have no
other options and that our Iranian colleagues do not hear us for some reason,"
Significantly, Medvedev also assertively defended Russia's military sales to
Iran, including the agreement to supply S-300 missiles, and stated that even
though Russia didn't have any agreement with Iran that obliges it to come to
the latter's help in the event of a military attack "that does not mean that we
would like to be or will be impassive before such developments".
The big question, therefore, is whether Medvedev's remark that "in some cases
sanctions are inevitable" represents a policy shift by Moscow. Has Obama "wrung
a concession" from Medvedev to consider tough new sanctions against Iran - to
use the words of New York Times' Helene Cooper? Did Obama score a "key
victory", as the Washington Times wrote?
A delighted Michael McFaul, the White House's senior advisor on Russia,
trumpeted, "We're at a different place in US-Russia relations." On a bleak
political landscape with the US administration groping for a way on the Iran
problem, any straw seems sufficient to clutch and the Russians may not begrudge
the American side doing that. The Soviet-American diplomatic history is not
without such moments.
Surely, there is no tectonic shift in the Russian position on Iran. Arguably,
there is nothing new in what Medvedev said in New York. He said much the same
in a meeting with the West's Russia experts a month ago; he then explained it
at some length in the CNN interview. But no one can deny that there is
nonetheless just about enough in it for the White House to claim - uncontested
- that Russia bent, finally, a little toward tougher Iran sanctions.
However, even as the White House began savoring success with Medvedev's six
little words spoken in his Waldorf Astoria suite on Wednesday afternoon, Jiang
Yu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, soured the moment for the
Americans. "We always believe that sanctions and pressure are not the way out.
At present, it is not conducive to diplomatic efforts," Jiang said at a
briefing in Beijing on Thursday.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also repeated Beijing's stance that the
issue of Iran's nuclear program was best resolved peacefully through dialogue.
Given the close coordination by Moscow and Beijing on major international
issues, China wouldn't have spoken out of turn.
In the final analysis, the new UN Security Council resolution passed on
Thursday calling for an end to nuclear proliferation did not name Iran -
despite robust canvassing by the US and Britain - and that was because Russia
and China wouldn't allow that to happen. Also, the resolution stopped well
short of authorizing forced inspections of countries believed to be developing
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.