Russia may be the US's indispensable partner in any fence-mending with Tehran. And Obama's three-minute video appeal to Iran Friday raises hopes here that Moscow and Washington may also be on the path to better ties.
"There is no doubt that Obama's expressed readiness to talk with Iran pushes away the threat of war, and is an extremely positive signal in the development of US ties with Russia," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow.
Obama's message promises "engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect" and diplomacy "that addresses the full range of issues before us." But the outreach was greeted coolly by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, who said Saturday that there will be no shift in relations until the US shows "real changes" in its foreign policy.
Amid the ebb and flow of tensions over Iran in recent years, Moscow always insisted that it agrees with Washington over the desired outcome. Both countries find the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran unacceptable. But, at least until now, Moscow and Washington could not agree on a starting point, much less a road map for reaching these goals.
As presidents Dmitri Medvedev and Obama prepare for a crucial first meeting on the sidelines of next month's G-20 meeting in London, what to do about Iran could be central to their efforts to recalibrate the troubled US-Russian relationship.
While most doubt the issue can derail the negotiations for a new bilateral strategic arms control accord that are expected to take center stage later this year, many see them as the acid test of whether the two countries will be able to form a fruitful partnership for tackling a wider range of global security problems.
"There are a host of questions where tight cooperation between Russia and the US could bring about results," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "But we feel that the US needs to change its attitude toward Russia, and begin to treat us as a partner and not as a follower that will simply fall into line. Establishing that kind of relationship is the key to reaching accord on Iran and other burning problems."
Though Russia is not one of Iran's top trading partners (those would be Japan, China, Germany, and Italy) it has become the Islamic Republic's chief supplier of sophisticated weaponry and civilian nuclear technology. Russian security experts insist that these ties are less important than Moscow's principle differences with the US over the appropriate ways to engage with Iran over its known uranium-enrichment program and its suspected drive to obtain nuclear weapons. As a member of the UN Security Council, Russia has supported three rounds of mild sanctions against Iran, but vetoed a set of tougher measures last year.
Many in the West interpret Iran's recent launch of a satellite, and a February report by International Atomic Energy Agency suggesting that it has accumulated enough enriched uranium to build an atomic bomb, as a dire sign of time running out. But Russia, which completed its contract to build Iran's first civilian nuclear power plant at Bushehr this month, argues that there is no discernible threat.
"The Russian Federation continues to believe that there are no signs of the [Iranian nuclear] program being switched toward goals, and that it is of an exclusively peaceful nature," deputy foreign minister Sergei Rybakov said Friday, following Obama's address.
"The main difference of approach is that Russia believes that there is still time to convince Iran to stop or at least interrupt its nuclear program, while the US thinks that time has almost run out," says Vladimir Sazhin, an expert at the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow.
The Russian preference is for diplomacy, economic incentives, and security guarantees in exchange for Iranian nuclear concessions, he adds. By contrast, the Bush administration favored isolation of Iran, tougher sanctions, and "keeping all options on the table," a euphemism for military force.
"Barack Obama has suggested the new and hopeful possibility of a direct dialogue between the US and Iran," Mr. Sazhin says. "If that came to pass, then it's quite conceivable that the US and Russia could sit around a table and work together to persuade the Iranians."
But an attempt by Obama to jumpstart cooperation with Russia over Iran earlier this month was angrily rebuffed. In a letter to Medvedev, Obama suggested the US might cancel plans to station antimissile weapons in Poland in exchange for an undisclosed Russian quid pro quo.
"No one sets conditions on these issues with tradeoffs, especially on the Iranian problem," Mr. Medvedev told journalists. "In any case, we are working closely with our American colleagues on Iran's nuclear program."
Russian experts say that the Kremlin is sensitive because it feels burned by past deals, especially a secret 1995 accord between then-Vice President Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, in which Russia agreed to cease all arms exports to Iran after existing contracts ran out in exchange for being kept off US sanctions lists. There is little evidence that Russia abided by the bargain, and it was repudiated by the Kremlin administration of Vladimir Putin, which has gone on to sell advanced Tor-M1 antiaircraft missiles to Iran, and has concluded – but still not delivered on – a contract to provide long-range S-300 air defense systems.
"Russia feels that it can be an effective intermediary because of its political ties with Iran. We could do a lot to shape a productive dialogue between Tehran and the West," says Anton Khlopkov, director of the independent Center for Energy and Security Studies in Moscow. "But our ties with Iran are very important, and separate from our relationship with the US.... But from the Russian perspective, Iran is not for sale."