The next phase of the Ukraine crisis may not take place in Ukraine, but Iran. For the time being, Putin seems content to consolidate his gains in Crimea, but he is sending increasingly obvious signals that he will respond to Western sanctions by disturbing the nuclear talks with Iran. The New York Times reports:
“We wouldn’t like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington,” [Russian delegate to the Iran talks Sergei] Ryabkov was quoted as saying. “But if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well. The historic importance of what happened in the last weeks and days regarding the restoration of historical justice and reunification of Crimea with Russia is incomparable to what we are dealing with in the Iranian issue.”
Russia clearly has the ability to make sanctions against Iran less effective, and there are ways it can make these talks more difficult as well.Western experts keep repeating the mantra that Russia shares the West’s interest in keeping the Iranians from getting the bomb, and it is true that such an interest exists. But that interest may not be as important as Westerners like to think it is. Russia has a much greater interest in reducing American power and prestige, and forcing Obama into a corner on Iran could look very attractive to the Kremlin.After all, if Russia did manage to stop the talks dead, the result wouldn’t automatically be an Iranian bomb. The first result would be to put Obama into the horrible, no-win situation he has spent his whole presidency working hard to avoid: where his only two choices are military action against Iran and accepting an Iranian nuclear weapon. If (as the White House has continually insisted that he would) he goes for force, the United States gets involved in another Middle Eastern war, and Russia enjoys a huge financial windfall as oil prices skyrocket and a propaganda windfall as the United States (without a UN mandate, which Russia would take care to block) takes on yet another preventative war in a Middle Eastern country.Or, alternatively, the United States endures its most humiliating and devastating foreign policy defeat in decades, leaving its prestige in tatters and its global alliance system fundamentally weakened as yet another of President Obama’s red lines, this one much brighter and deeper than the one in Syria, gets crossed—with impunity.Either way, a rational Russian might see gains that would offset the consequences of an Iranian nuclear weapon—and, again, Russia’s core strategic goal is to weaken and damage American power as a necessary step in overturning a post-Cold War order that Putin and his associates hate.It’s not clear exactly how much of a spoiler Russia could be in these talks, but the West may still be underestimating Russia’s determination to strike at American power and prestige when the opportunity arises. Typically, Putin looks for places where the West has made large rhetorical claims that its leaders lack the will to enforce. Then he strikes hard, revealing how hollow their fine rhetoric is as their weak responses unfold. The Iranian case, where the U.S. negotiating position fundamentally rests on the threat of force if all else fails, may, Putin might calculate, be just another case of White House bluff. Working to make sure that bluff is called would be an immensely satisfying foreign policy coup for the Kremlin.U.S. diplomats and policymakers, along with their colleagues in Europe, need to take the threat of Russian interference seriously. If Russia can derail the Iran talks, it will be sorely tempted to try.