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    Middle East
     Sep 26, 2009
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 - plus Germany.

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 Iran problem.

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 ticking.)

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 decision.

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 weapons.
  • 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," said Medvedev.

    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 weapons.

    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.

    (Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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