Fierce American criticism of Russia's military action in Georgia is almost certain to jeopardize a very different US strategic objective: stepping up pressure on Iran with another layer of United Nations sanctions.
As builders of Iran's $800 million nuclear power reactor, Russia has long resisted imposing sanctions to halt Iran's program, which the US says is a cover to make an atomic bomb. Washington has convinced Moscow to support three previous sets of Security Council sanctions.
But US efforts to launch a fourth set of sanctions – begun last week, as Iran all but ignored a US-European deadline on a nuclear deal – may get lost in the shrill US-Russian tussle in the Caucasus.
"This will make any hope of cooperative effort on Iran much more difficult," says Michael McFaul, a Russia and Iran expert at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. Support on Iran, he says, is "without question" the biggest strategic casualty of the renewed US-Russia tension.
Iran is "the last serious issue where the Bush administration has decisions to make in terms of changing policy," says Mr. McFaul. It is also "the one place … of high national security interest to the United States where Russia plays a direct role in what we are trying to do. In that sense, it towers over all these other things."
US and European officials are scrambling for ways to punish Russia for moving armed forces into separatist, pro-Russian enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in pro-West Georgia, and then into Georgia itself, to counter a Georgian military invasion late last week.
After five days of fighting that routed Georgia's small, US-advised forces, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said the "aggressors" had been "punished" and ordered an end to operations. Russia lambasted Georgia's US-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili as a "terrorist" and "lunatic" who should be tried for "genocide."
But the rhetoric has also been unusually blunt between the US and Russia. President Bush this week demanded Russia end a "dramatic and brutal escalation of violence."
"This has come at a very opportune time for Iran," says a Tehran-based political analyst who asked not to be named. "Any new rift between the US and Russians would be welcome by Iran … anything that give Iran more time and a little more headache for the US."
Georgia is not far from Iran's borders, and "up to a point, Iran would be quietly happy, but the conflict can escalate to something that would cause more instability and suffering," says the analyst, which Iran does not want.
US warplanes carried 2,000 Georgian troops out of Iraq Sunday, until then the third-largest coalition member, which manned checkpoints to prevent weapons smuggling along Iraq's border with Iran.
Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin mocked the US effort. "I'm amazed by their skills at seeing black as white, of portraying aggressors as victims," Mr. Putin said. "Some of our partners, far from assisting us, are attempting to impede us [by transferring Georgian troops] on board US aircraft directly to the conflict zone."
Former Soviet leader and Nobel laureate Mikhail Gorbachev also blamed the US and the West more generally for military training and political support that "emboldened Georgian leaders."
"By declaring the Caucasus, a region that is thousands of miles from the American continent, a sphere of its 'national interest,' the United States made a serious blunder," Mr. Gorbachev wrote in The Washington Post and Rossiyskaya Gazeta in Moscow.
The effect will be felt beyond the Caucasus. Noting that the US wants Russia to support sanctions against Iran and to not sell weapons – "particularly the highly effective S-300 air defense system" – an analysis from Stratfor, an intelligence analysis firm, said Wednesday that the Russians "have backed the Americans into a corner."
"Georgia is a marginal issue to the United States; Iran is a central issue," notes Stratfor. The US must either "reorient" away from the Mideast to the Caucasus, or "seriously limit its response to Georgia to avoid a Russian counter in Iran."
The US has canceled a joint NATO naval exercise with Russia due to begin this week, and the US and Europeans are debating further steps, which include kicking Russia out of a series of regional groupings including the G-8 industrialized nations, returning it to the original G-7.
The harsh rhetoric comes on top of a host of issues that have rankled the once-close post-Soviet US relationship with Russia. They include expansion of the NATO alliance to Russia's western borders, US insistence on placing missile-defense units – aimed at one day stopping an Iranian missile – in eastern Europe, and strong support for a string of democratic revolutions in nations that were once part of the Soviet Union. Georgia's "Rose Revolution" was the first, in 2003.
"Even if there are no more UN sanctions on Iran, at least there can still be more US and European sanctions," says a US diplomat who follows Iranian issues.
The US Treasury on Tuesday imposed sanctions on five more Iranian companies it called "nuclear and missile entities … used by Iran to hide its illicit conduct and further its dangerous nuclear ambitions."
"I think [Russia has] been playing us when it comes to sanctions and stringing it out for years and years," says McFaul. "They've never wanted sanctions, and our position has moved to theirs, not vice versa. If you go back 12 years ago, we were debating whether there should be a Bushehr [nuclear reactor]. Now we are well beyond that today."
But while the sanctions are affecting commercial ties, Iranian leaders insist the modest layers of UN, US, and EU sanctions in place are not the reason for the dire state of Iran's economy. Experts point out that the high price of oil is a salve.
Iran benefits, too, from having the international spotlight turned on Georgia and away from its nuclear gamesmanship.
"It seems to be overshadowing the Iran nuclear issue, at least for some time," says the Tehran analyst. "It makes it more difficult at the UN and the P5 [permanent five members of the Security Council] to sit down and talk about the nuclear issue when there is a conflict as well going on."