The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Crimea River Russia Warns: We’ll Play the Iran Card Against U.S., EU

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.

Published on March 19, 2014 7:46 pm
  • Pete

    Putin is taking Obama’s capital pieces without even losing a pawn.

  • Philip Mead

    Let’s have a referendum on annexing Cuba. Of course, all Cuban Americans should get a vote. In Putin’s words, “Crimea [Cuba] has always been in our hearts and minds” and the poor misguided Cubans have long been meddling in our sphere of influence. While holding the referendum, we will surround our island brothers with warships to safeguard the integrity of the voting process and perhaps test a few icbms to make sure they still work properly. Once the Cubans receive the benefits of spanking new casinos, resorts and tourism dollars, and can sell their cigars to their northern comrades, I’m sure everyone will agree that they are much better off. And clearly Venezuela too has long been in our hearts and minds…

  • stefanstackhouse

    Since Russia has violated its commitments in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and has violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, it has proven itself to be an unreliable negotiating partner. It is pointless and foolish to continue to engage them in ANY negotiations unless and until we see a genuine and substantive change of course. If they want to ally with Iran, then we’ll just have to do with what we perceive to be in our national interests without regard for what the Russians might think.

    The Iranians might want to think twice before entering into an embrace with the bear. Russian bears can crush those they embrace. The bear has considered northern Iran, at least, to be part of its home range within recent history, and has always dreamed of fishing in the Gulf.

  • rheddles

    Like Russia has been cooperating against Iran.

    He had a choice between dishonour and war. He chose dishonour. Now he shall have war.

  • http://www.twitter.com/changeirannow Change Iran Now

    Iran will leap at the chance to take advantage of the Ukraine crisis by joining itself at the hip with Putin in opposing the West. It’s the height of irony that while Rouhani makes all of these public overtures as a moderate to the West, he in fact is skillfully taking advantage of this crisis to gain further sanctions relief all while keeping Iran’s nuclear weapons research program largely intact.