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Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009

The biggest issue in Eurasia over the coming year will be the complex and knotted triangle between Russia, Iran and the United States. There are three reasons why this three-way tangle will be so critical this year: the Nabucco pipeline; the possible completion of the Iranian nuclear program (at least to a point where it can build a bomb); and the election of Barack Obama.

Obama first. The President-elect’s perceived openness towards Iran – a stance that is still more hawkish than many conservative governments elsewhere in the world would adopt – raises the possibility of dialogue with Tehran, and the possibility of direct talks between the arch-rivals. The issue is still extremely complex, and commentators have been lining up to offer an analysis of how to approach Iran, but the broad contours of Obama’s policy – a few less sticks, a few more carrots – are reasonably clear. The question is what happens next: will the offer of dialogue, and a possible loosening of the sanctions regime, be enough to stop Iran from completing its nuclear program or supporting entities such as Hamas and Hezbollah? The war in Gaza has done nothing to dampen Iranian commitment to supporting its proxies against Israel: it has probably done the opposite. Whilst Barack Obama refuses to take a stand against the Israelis (at least in the eyes of Tehran), the chances of such support being dropped are close to zero.

As for the nuclear program, 2009 could be the year in which the Islamic Republic finally reaches the point where it can build a bomb. It may, therefore, be so close that playing for time in its talks with Washington makes more strategic sense than stopping the centrifuges. For domestic purposes, 2009 is not the ideal year to begin dialogue. Iran’s presidential elections are due in June, which will politicise the issue of the nuclear program more than ever. The outcome of the election is in doubt, since President Ahmadinejad’s position has been increasingly shaky amid rising social discontent. However, his prospects have been bolstered by his vocal response to the Gaza crisis and, most interestingly, his apparent endorsement by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as reported over at Eurasianet. The unprecedented endorsement suggests that the religious-political establishment in Tehran is seriously concerned about the chances of reformist ex-president Mohammed Khatami in the election. It also implies that the clerical leadership is firmly committed to maintaining a hard line on the nuclear program, and approves of playing for time until a bomb is ready.

Assuming that the Iranians continue to stonewall America, albeit in a slightly more cordial atmosphere, what can the US and Europe offer as a tangible reward for good behaviour? The answer is Nabucco. The pipeline to bring Caspian gas to Europe still requires a supplier with huge, long-term gas reserves. Turkmenistan is the obvious option, but Iran has the infrastructure and the political will to supply the project. To limit the awkwardness of the deal for the West, Iran could agree to supply Turkey’s domestic needs, thus allowing Ankara to pump all of the Azeri/Turkmen gas on to Europe – Turkey has been insisting on its right to take a cut of Nabucco’s gas for domestic use. This would constitute a practical reward for Iran whilst still holding it at arm’s length from the European gas network.

Whether or not Tehran can be brought in from the cold depends in large part on Russia. Long-standing rumours that Moscow has sold advanced S-300 air defence systems to Iran were boosted in December when the Iranian state news agency claimed that delivery was underway (a claim Russia denied). These systems could prevent, or at the very least pose a major obstacle to, any US/Israeli airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether or not Russia goes ahead with the delivery will be a key test of the relationship between the three powers. Russia may feel that the costs of supporting Tehran under the Obama administration outweigh the benefits, especially since in reality it has no interest in a nuclear-armed Iran.

2009 will probably be make-or-break time in the Russo-Iranian tactical alliance. Even if Moscow can be persuaded to curtail its support to Tehran, however, Europe and the US will still have problems in their relationship with Russia in the year ahead. Principally, these revolve around European missile defence – an issue on which Barack Obama has shown willingness to compromise, in order to reduce Russian fears – and the expansion of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. The danger of confrontation over these issues will be exacerbated by Russia’s increasing domestic woes. The collapse of oil and gas prices over recent months has, according to many Russia-watchers, begun to weaken the social contract which has allowed the Kremlin to stifle social unrest by ensuring a steady rise in living standards. The contracting economy has increased competition for jobs, contributing to a surge in xenophobic nationalism which the Kremlin will have to co-opt to reduce further dissent. In such a situation, Russia’s foreign policy may become increasingly aggressive in order to deflect criticism of its economic performance (although the reverse – that economic weakness will lead to a more humble, co-operative Russia, has also been argued). The awkward division of power between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin will also inevitably come under strain during the financial crisis.

So the West will need to tread carefully in the coming year: it poses great opportunities for progress in the relationship with Russia and Iran, if handled correctly: Russia can be brought on side (if not provoked) and Iran can be isolated from Moscow’s assistance, which could prove critical in the stand-off over the nuclear programme. However, the risks in 2009 are huge. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the rules of the game in Eurasia and the Middle East will change dramatically. Should this occur in tandem with the rise of a nationalist, fractious and divided Moscow, the risks of conflict or instability in Eurasia could become extremely high.



"Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009" | 1 comment | Search Discussion
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by Anonymous on Tue Feb 24, 2009 7:55 am
I must confess that I agree with your analysis. Please, allow me to play the "Kreml" rolle. If I were the Kreml, I´d rather use the financial crisis as a great chance to expand my (political) control upon the Ukraine (Crimea could be the first territorial temptative), if possible in a "pacific" way. The worst scenario: a civil war this year or some kind of repartition of Ukraine with the EU (Poland in the first place). If I were the Kreml, in the middle of the "fog of war" in the North Caucausus, and using as well as "alibi" the Nagorno-Karabaj conflict, other second objective could be Azerbaiyan as well, and so the "stability" by the means of arms is restored and by the way the entire control on the natural resources in this area of interest (Clausewitz reloaded?). Of course, trying to maintain Turkey as neutral as possible. If I were the Kremlin, the USA can not win in Afganistan, because after "controlling" Irak, the next "Liberty and Country" military operation will be most probably against Iran. The simple conclusion could be: helping Iran is good for the Kreml. Concerning the finantial crisis in Russia, a self-made or home made "putsch" followed by a dictatorship further controlled by Putin could be a possible scenario. The worst scenario: a "russian-ultranationalist" dictatorship (and "good bye, Estonia"). If I were the Kreml, and knowing that I have not good press in such countries like the UK, Norway, Poland or the Baltic States, the solution pass through Germany and France. In my opinion, Italy and Spain are only temporary steps (and they think "locally"), in order to achieve other global aims concerning gas and oil in Northern Africa (ie. Argel, Libia) and Latin America (ie. Venezuela, Bolivia). Now I understand what Sarah Palin minded when she said: "I can see Russia from my house". If I were Russian, I would enlist the Russian Marines Corp: "Tam gdzie my, tam -pobieda!"

http://carmelomolina.wordpress.com/


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