In the most naked threat yet from Russia, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news service that Russia could “raise the stakes” in its confrontation with the West by revising its stance on Iran. The Associated Press has the story.
The threat has teeth. Russia is not only a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and so able to block new sanctions or other action against Iran by the world body; it is also a member of the P5+1 negotiating group working to reach a nuclear compromise with Iran.
If Russia switches its stance from pushing Iran, however lightly, toward abandoning its nuclear program toward tacitly or overtly promising to support Iran regardless of the nuclear issue, the West’s strategy toward Iran could rapidly unravel. Closer economic relations with Russia could help protect Iran from the effect of renewed sanctions, and any technical assistance with either the nuclear or long range missile components of Iran’s strategy could dramatically accelerate Iran’s buildup.
We’ll have to see whether this threat is taken up and repeated by other senior members of the Russian security and political establishments, but if it is, we will have a clear sign that Russia’s goals aren’t limited to securing bases in Crimea. Russia doesn’t just want to win this crisis; it doesn’t want President Obama to escape from it without a crushing public humiliation.
Linking the Ukraine crisis with the Iran negotiation is an American nightmare; it might just be a Russian dream come true. President Obama has tried to separate the nuclear question from the geopolitics of the region. He has pursued a nuclear accommodation with Iran despite that country’s intense and unremitting quest to dominate Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. That separation has unnerved U.S. allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who fear that the United States is preparing to let Iran control the region in exchange for what inevitably would be a less than ironclad assurance that Iran’s nuclear program would never cross the threshold into making actual bombs.
The Obama strategy has always been a risky one; if Russia shifts into active cooperation with Iran, it is hard to see how the White House can keep hope alive. Again, we will have to see whether this statement really represents Russian policy rather than rhetoric, but if it does, President Obama may have to choose between a shattering humiliation in the Black Sea, or a significantly greater risk of war in the Persian Gulf.