WASHINGTON — Over the past year, the United States and Russia have built a closer relationship, overcoming many hurdles. But on one issue, a huge gap remains: Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear-weapons and missile-development programs. The Bush administration needs to take bolder actions on this, beginning later this month at the presidential summit in Moscow.
Iran's acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would threaten the United States and its friends in the Middle East and Europe. For many years, Russia has been Iran's principal supplier of technology, equipment, and components for ballistic missiles and nuclear-weapons development. Ending the aid would make it far more difficult for Iran to develop advanced weapons.
US efforts to halt Russian transfers of dangerous technologies to Iran have met with little success, for several reasons. The US has yet to offer Russia many positive incentives that would offset for powerful domestic interests the value of such assistance. The United States' use of sanctions against Russia has poisoned the atmosphere for cooperation. And Russian officials either do not see Iran as a threat or believe they can manage the consequences if Iran does acquire WMD capabilities.
Ending Russia's weapons assistance to Iran should be an important US strategic priority, and the Bush administration should take steps that are commensurate with its importance. At the same time, the US cannot submit to Russian blackmail or compromise other core security interests in pursuit of a US-Russian deal. What options are available?
First, the US should offer major financial incentives to compensate Russia for the economic losses it would suffer from ending its assistance to Iran. Much of this increased aid for example, US cooperation in improving the commercial value of Russia's nuclear energy industry could also be used to downsize Russia's bloated nuclear infrastructure.
Second, it is time to "think outside the box." Other issues may be more important to Russia than supplying nuclear and missile technologies to Iran. These include support for early entry into the World Trade Organization on terms favorable to Russia, greater access to Western investment and technology, and debt relief. The US should seek to leverage these issues to get what it wants on Iran.
Third, Washington should link its missile defense program, US strategic force reductions, and Russian transfer of sensitive military technologies to Iran. Iranian success in acquiring long-range ballistic missiles for delivery of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons will influence the future capabilities of a US missile defense system and US strategic force levels.
The United States should underscore that, in return for concrete actions to cut off dangerous assistance to Iran, the US would consider more favorably Russian proposals to limit missile-defense deployments and to reduce the size of our nuclear stockpile. Washington also needs to emphasize that significant US-Russian ballistic missile-defense cooperation will not be possible if Russia does not shut off its WMD spigot to Iran.
Last, the US should press for greater European support. The importance Russian President Vladimir Putin assigns to deepening ties with Europe gives America's European allies considerable leverage over Russian policies. The US should urge its European allies to condition their growing economic assistance and investment in Russia on concrete Russian actions to cut off WMD assistance to Iran.
At this month's summit, beginning May 23, President Bush will need to impress on President Putin that stanching the flow of Russian WMD aid to Iran will be critical to strengthening the US-Russian partnership. Coming up with the right incentives for Russia is no guarantee of success, but neglecting to do so is a sure recipe for failure.
Richard Sokolsky is a distinguished research fellow at the National Defense University's Institute for National Strategic Studies. These are his personal views.