High Stakes for Moscow in U.S. Play for Iran

The situation in Iran will likely become the center of global tensions in the months and years ahead. Tehran's desire to establish its status as a regional power will surely clash with Washington's desire to solidify its own global leadership role. And Russia, which has one foot in both camps, will find itself in an increasingly difficult position.

President Barack Obama remains committed to the policy on Iran that he articulated during his election campaign. In short, Washington has a clear interest in normalizing relations with Tehran.

Tehran was the only party to come out an unequivocal winner following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After Iran's chief nemesis, President Saddam Hussein, was executed, Tehran began to spread its influence throughout a large part of Iraq. If the U.S. forces really do withdraw from Iraq, Iran will play a central role in how events develop further there.

Tehran is an enemy of al-Qaida, and with regard to Pakistan — a key player in the Afghanistan conflict — it is envious of its membership in the nuclear club. Iran has no interest in seeing the Taliban victorious in Afghanistan either, and it considers the Taliban — Sunni radicals who have ties to Saudi Arabia — to be its main rival in the Islamic world.

What's more, by improving relations with Iran, the United States can achieve its goal of diversifying energy supplies to Europe, which means reducing European dependence on Russian gas and oil. And only Iranian natural gas supplies can make the proposed Nabucco gas pipeline project viable.

The economic and political fallout for Moscow would be enormous if Tehran and Washington even partially normalize relations. Improved relations between the two would give Europe access to Iranian natural gas, meaning that Russia would have to battle with a new, powerful competitor to maintain its share of the European energy market. Furthermore, normal U.S.-Iranian relations would open Iran's domestic market to Western technologies, including in the civilian nuclear power sector, thereby potentially leaving Russia on the sidelines in these lucrative markets.

From a rational point of view, it would be to Washington's advantage to improve relations with Iran the way former U.S. President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger did with China in the 1970s. If Washington can get past its deep aversion to Tehran's theocratic and anti-Semitic regime, we will witness a revolution in global geopolitics. This is all the more a challenge considering that Washington's relations with the current Iranian regime began with a severe conflict 30 years ago when revolutionaries held 52 U.S. diplomats hostage for 444 days. No superpower can easily overlook this brazen act, even 30 years later.

The upcoming presidential election in Iran is unlikely to change the situation drastically. The West hopes that Iran's economic problems will undermine the voter base of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although the departure of a man who has become a symbol of anti-Semitism and aggression would undoubtedly improve the general atmosphere, it is unlikely to result in fundamental changes in Tehran's policies toward the West.

In any case, there is little chance that the United States will be able to establish a positive dialogue with Iran. Tehran believes that its right to develop a nuclear program is not negotiable, and Washington remains inflexibly opposed to it.

For the sake of argument, let's consider the improbable scenario in which Moscow, in an effort to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons and destabilizing the region, sides with Washington by supporting sanctions against Tehran. Few people seriously believe that international sanctions are capable of preventing Iran from developing its nuclear program. Past experience shows that sanctions are ineffective in such situations.

What would happen next? Would the world have to come to terms with a nuclear-armed Tehran? Washington previously closed a blind eye to India and Pakistan when they "illegally" developed nuclear weapons, and the United States might be able to tolerate one more addition to the nuclear club, in theory, if the country were moderate. But there is a clear difference between letting New Delhi or Islamabad join the club and giving membership rights to the militant anti-U.S. regime in Tehran.

This says nothing of the fact that it would be a serious political defeat for Washington if Iran were to test a nuclear weapon. After all, the administrations of three consecutive U.S. presidents (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama) have declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is absolutely inadmissible because of the global threat it would represent. What's more, it would have a domino effect, leading other Middle Eastern states to obtain nuclear arms, thereby destroying any attempt to enforce nuclear nonproliferation.

Another option for Obama is to use force to resolve the Iranian question. If the U.S. military is successful in forcing a regime change in Tehran, it will solidify the global status of the United States as the only state capable of resolving the world's problems. In general, U.S. presidents don't sit by and watch impassively during major global events. And if Washington's attempt to establish a rapport with Tehran ends unsuccessfully, it will serve as one more example of how it is pointless to try talking with Iran's leaders.

Iran is a problem for Russia regardless of which direction Tehran goes. A nuclear-armed Iran would greatly destabilize the region. It is difficult to predict the extent and aim of Iran's ambitions. Any attempt by the United States to apply force against Iran would mean that the military conflict would be brought to Russia's southern border. Moreover, if Washington achieves its objectives in Iran, it would shift the strategic balance of power in favor of the United States and away from Moscow. But a failure by the United States to achieve its goals in Iran could undermine the existing balance of power.

No matter how subsequent events develop, Moscow will play no more than a supporting role at best. One big risk for Russia is coming out the loser if it supports the wrong side in the struggle.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

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