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?

A few months ago, at a small private luncheon I attended, former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, one of the wisest men in the foreign affairs community, was asked about the Iran problem. "Iran can't be solved," he replied, "without Russia."

Someone from the Obama administration must have been eavesdropping.

All the signs suggest that in return for Russian pressure upon Iran to end its military nuclear program, the Obama White House quid pro quo would abandon the missile defense project the Bush White House had planned to build on Russia's doorstep.

From the beginning the Russians have hated the project, to be located in Poland and the Czech Republic, and have threatened various kinds of retaliation. The Bush administration argued it was intended as a defense against potential Iranian missiles, and posed no threat to Russia.

In a speech in Munich earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden suggested the US was willing to talk with the Russians about the project. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the US "will reconsider where we stand" on the ballistic missile defense project if Iran curbs its military nuclear program.

In his interview with the Al-Arabiya TV network, President Obama said: "If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

So the question now is whether Russia is willing to help unclench Iran's hand on its suspected nuclear missile production. Russia brings special leverage because of its close economic and military ties with Iran. Moscow has also aided Tehran's allegedly peaceful nuclear program. Time may be of the essence: To mark the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution earlier this month, Iran fired a satellite into space atop a Safir-2 rocket, apparently an adaptation of the Shahab-3, which could carry a nuclear warhead.

Some American military analysts have thought the missile defense project in Poland and the Czech Republic to be dubious from the beginning and unduly provocative to the Russians. If Iran forgoes the development of nuclear weaponry and offers credible evidence of such, the system would be unnecessary anyway.

Russia's intentions are always hard to read. As Winston Churchill remarked some 70 years ago: "It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Things have not changed a lot since then and Russia's current attitude toward the US is a murky mixture of overtures and bellicosity. Through the ever-present veil of suspicion in Moscow about the Americans, there have been intimations of willingness to work with the Obama administration.

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.

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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