Editor's note: This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. EST.
The US has asked Russia to carry an ultimatum to the leaders of Iran, warning that upcoming six-nation talks on the Iranian nuclear program will be the "last chance" for progress before it pursues a military option, the leading Moscow daily Kommersant reported today (in Russian).
According to an anonymous high Russian diplomatic source quoted by the newspaper, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at a UN Security Council session on March 12 to deliver that tough missive to Tehran ahead of talks scheduled to take place in Turkey by April. Kommersant is a pro-business, liberal newspaper that is generally considered reliable when it cites official sources, although today's story does not provide any direct quotes from the unnamed diplomat.
US State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner declined to comment on the Kommersant story but said in an e-mail, "We still believe there's time for a diplomatic solution so long as Iran is serious about addressing [the] international community's concerns."
Speaking at a joint press conference with British Prime Minister David Cameron in Washington today, President Obama offered a similar assessment of the options facing Tehran.
"I think (the Iranians) should understand ... that the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking," Obama said. "We will do everything we can to resolve this diplomatically but ultimately we’ve got to have somebody on the other side of the table who is taking this seriously and I hope that the Iranian regime understands that," he added.
The panel that will negotiate with Iran is known as the P5 + 1 group because it includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia, China, Britain, France and the US – plus Germany. Experts say the West will demand full disclosure from Iran on the extent of its nuclear program, and access to the suspected nuclear weapons testing site at Parchin for inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
The diplomatic source told Kommersant that American and Israeli preparations for a military strike against Iran are well underway, and that the attack is almost certain to happen before US presidential elections in November unless some major diplomatic breakthrough occurs.
"The invasion will happen before year’s end," Kommersant quoted the diplomat as saying. "The Israelis are de facto blackmailing [President Barack] Obama. They’ve put him in this interesting position – either he supports the war or loses the support of the Jewish lobby."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov did not confirm the story, but was quoted in Kommersant, adding pointedly that talking in ultimatums is an unproductive way to conduct diplomacy.
"Speaking in this way is unprofessional," Mr. Ryabkov told the paper. "There is no such thing as a last chance. It’s an issue of political will, and Russia does everything to foster such will ... those tempted to use military force should restrain themselves and search for a diplomatic solution. A war will not solve any problems, but will create a million new ones."
Preparing for 'inevitable' war
Russian analysts say the story sounds authentic, and add that Moscow will probably be happy to deliver that message to Iran, along with some thoughts of its own.
"Our diplomats will have more to say about this to the Iranians," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, a leading Moscow think tank. "Russia is not interested in war. It's interested in maintaining the current unstable situation, which keeps global oil prices high. But it wouldn't want to see Iran weakened by a US or Israeli military strike, because that would lead to a lot of unpredictable consequences."
Russia has increasingly come to the opinion that war is inevitable, and is taking steps to prepare for fallout from such a conflict, which could include waves of refugees, instability, and growing radicalism in former Soviet Central Asia and Russia's own restive northern Caucasus region.
Mr. Suslov says that Russia's Defense Ministry created a special task force to deal with potential fallout of a new Middle East war in February. Earlier, the Kremlin announced that this summer's Kavkaz military exercises in Russia's south will be devoted to handling a theoretical war in Iran, whose effects could spill over into former Soviet territory.
"Iran is not very far from Russian territory – we share the Caspian Sea – and no one knows what might be the impact on Iranian nuclear facilities in the event of a strike," says Alexander Golts, military columnist with the online newspaper Yezhednevny Zhurnal. "Refugees could penetrate into Azerbaijan, and if they come in large numbers they could reach Russia. The whole region might be destabilized."
Russian analysts appear divided over whether the US signal is part of a pattern of theatrical moves in the runup to a war that's already been decided upon, or if the US seriously hopes that diplomatic action can find a peaceful solution.
"The April talks could be a watershed, and the Americans are obviously staking a lot on them," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "If nothing comes out of them, it will be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the Obama administration. So maybe the US does see this as an important opportunity [to avert war]. Russia can play its part by informing the Iranians that our capacities to help them have been exhausted. As long as it was a matter before the Security Council, we could always wield our veto. But once it comes to unilateral action, they're on their own."
But, Mr. Suslov adds, "I don't see much hope that this can be turned around. Russia would like to prevent military action, but our establishment now appears convinced that war is inevitable."
A mixed record on intervention
Russia has played a peripheral, but occasionally influential, role in previous conflicts. In 1999, after weeks of a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia, Russian emissary Viktor Chernomyrdin finally convinced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to give up. In February 2003, former Russian prime minister Yevgeny Primakov visited Iraq with a message from then-president Vladimir Putin, urging the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to step down in the interest of peace.
It was Russia's acquiescence in the UN Security Council a year ago that allowed Resolution 1973, which authorized military force to protect civilians in Libya, to be passed. That decision led to an open rift among Russia's top leaders, with Mr. Putin publicly slamming the decision as authorizing a Western-backed "crusade" against Libya.
Russia has agreed to previous rounds of sanctions against Iran, including an arms ban that cost Moscow billions in contracts with Tehran and recently signaled that it will continue to honor that decision. But Moscow has also made clear that it believes harsh sanctions don't work and it will not support any further tough measures against Iran.
"The ball is now in the Iranian court, and much will depend upon the moods of Iranian leaders," says Georgy Mirski, an expert at the official Institute of International Relations and World Economy, which trains Russian diplomats.
"I was in Iran not long ago, and observed that while most people didn't seem happy with their leaders, the nuclear program seems to have become a national idea, a symbol of national dignity. It's rather clear that Iran is committed to getting at least the capacity to produce a bomb, even though they might not actually want to build one."