The Obama administration believes it is beginning to reap benefits from its recent decision to scrap a missile-defense plan in Eastern Europe – specifically, in enlisting Russia's cooperation to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
National Security Council (NSC) officials cite as evidence the bilateral meeting President Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev held Wednesday, which they said focused almost exclusively on Iran. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Medvedev suggested that Russia might be open to sanctioning Iran if the diplomatic path comes up short.
"Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases sanctions are inevitable," Medvedev said at the conclusion of the meeting.
Obama aides underscored the significance of the two leaders seeing eye to eye on Iran. They said the president was keen to cement a unified approach among world powers before next week's talks with Iran. On Oct. 1, the US will join its four UN Security Council colleagues plus Germany in what will be the first talks with Iran on the nuclear issue to include direct US participation.
US officials who sat in on the Obama-Medvedev meeting say the Russian leader reiterated Russia's opposition to an Iranian bomb. That indicates "we are coming together," says Michael McFaul, the NSC's senior director for Russia.
Agreement on the need to stop Iran from building a bomb will lead to a common strategy for achieving that goal Mr. McFaul adds: "Once you have a common strategic goal, you have to have a common strategy."
Obama said after the meeting that "we do not see a disagreement with the Russians."
McFaul was reluctant to parse the president's words. The US prefers other diplomatic options first, "but if we have to result to a more coercive strategy, we want to do that with the Russians. And the way I read President Medvedev," he added, "he agrees."
As to whether Russia's change resulted from the missile defense decision, McFaul repeated the administration's insistence that the decision to scrap the Bush administration's plan for installations in Poland and the Czech Republic was in no way a concession to Russia. But he added that "if it is the case that [the decision] changes the climate, I guess that's true."
A breakthrough with Russia would be a badly needed success for a US president who has suffered several setbacks in the foreign policy arena, including his as-yet failed hope of restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Obama's administration's upbeat assessment of the meeting contrasted with dour forecasts in the Russian press. Before the meeting, Russian media cited Russian officials who saw a dim outlook for cooperation on Iran and on other bilateral issues, including reaching a follow-on START accord for cutting nuclear weapons stockpiles by the end of the year.