By Nikolas Gvosdev and Dimitri Simes
Yet, as Brent Scowcroft, the former US national security adviser, observed recently: “To deter Iran, it is essential that there be a united front between the US, the European Union, Russia and China to prevent Iran from exploiting any differences or finding any sort of wiggle room that would allow it to continue with its programme.”
Russia may be prepared to pay a price to accommodate US concerns, even at the expense of valuable economic ties with Tehran – but co-operation with the US on Iran is being endangered by the propensity of some in the Bush administration, as well as a rising chorus of voices outside government, to shift US policy from its current approach of engagement towards an unrealistic notion of “selective co-operation”.
Proponents of an “a la carte” partnership expect
Most Russians believe that
Russians – including many government officials – question why unfree and unfair elections in Belarus have led to sanctions against that government, while Washington has shown much greater tolerance for equally serious electoral violations in Azerbaijan and has indicated willingness to do business with the neo-Stalinist regime in Turkmenistan. And many in Russia have asked, if democracy is really the issue, why is Pakistan – a military dictatorship that also had a clandestine nuclear programme – publicly embraced as a US ally?
Reasonable people can argue that the US position on all these questions is fair and serves American interests. But they cannot deny the obvious – that such actions are bound to be perceived by Moscow in a completely different light – and that this has a very real impact on Russian calculations about whether to support the US on critical international issues.
Some in Washington argue that Russian doubts do not matter – that Russia will be “with us” on Iran, and that there is no need to kowtow to the Kremlin. But there is a big difference between token co-operation (as reflected in the recent UN statement) and the sort of active, engaged effort (including free sharing of intelligence between two services still wracked by a good deal of cold war-era suspicion) that could lead to genuine success in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. After all, even though Russia and the US both have been targeted by al-Qaeda, the post-1999 chill on relations precluded any joint action in dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan prior to September 11 2001 – as Mr Putin himself had proposed.
The Bush administration has not yet settled whether pursuing a new containment of Russia in Eurasia is a higher priority than forging an effective coalition of the permanent five members of the Security Council on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Selective co-operation – the idea that the US can reap the benefits of partnership with Russia on Iran while still making efforts to roll back Russian influence in the post-Soviet space – is a chimera. America can undertake the latter if it is prepared to forego the former. Foreign policy is not a morality play – and free lunches are rarely available, especially not from Mr Putin for perceived adversaries. Wishful boasting to the contrary will not make us safer.
Nikolas Gvosdev is editor of The National Interest; Dimitri Simes is president of The Nixon Center in Washington DC