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Opinion

A Russian answer to Iran's threat

Moscow can bring Tehran to heel, if the US price is right. Is Obama ready to give up missile defense to make that happen?

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By contrast, Moscow has all but succeeded in shouldering the US out of its basing rights in Kyrgyzstan, important logistically for the war in Afghanistan. It is planning Black Sea naval and air bases in Abkhazia following the US-deplored invasion of Georgia. There is also the odd collision over Siberia of a Russian satellite with an American communications satellite, an accident that raised eyebrows and provoked recriminations.

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The Russian psyche is often prone to melancholy and the Putin-Medvedev regime simmers over Russia's loss of empire as once-subordinate states have broken from Moscow's grasp and looked to the West and freedom. There is also painful recognition that Russia has passed its moment in history as a military superpower. There is angst that even its oil wealth is ephemeral as world prices have slumped. This newfound sense of inferiority makes the Russian leadership hyper-sensitive to slights real or imagined.

Could it then exert what remains of its considerable influence on Iran to curtail its military nuclear program? Russia has no desire to see Iran become a nuclear weapons-wielding power in the Middle East. But the price must be right before it is ready to spend political capital to prevent that from happening. It remains to be seen whether abrogation of the American antimissile project in Eastern Europe meets that price.

It also remains to be seen whether the wily Russians are capable of such a diplomatic coup with the wilier Iranians.

In a changing world, as powers decline and ascend, and partnerships and alliances realign, Iran must determine what kind of state it wants to be. Declining oil prices have made the Iranian economy vulnerable. Students are restless. There have been demonstrations in the marketplace against government edicts. Elections loom in June and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose ranting depictions of the outside world defy rationality, and whose promises of a stronger economy at home have failed, is to be challenged by a former president and reformer, Mohammad Khatami.

Does Iran want to be a regional nuclear bully, tied to archaic interpretations of Islam, or will it become a progressive state, mobilizing the abilities of its talented people to take its place in the comity of world nations?

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, served as assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration. He is a professor of international communications at Brigham Young University.

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