Iran and the Resetting of US-Russia Relations
At an emergency meeting of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council on May 18 this year, the United States submitted a draft resolution to impose tough new sanctions on Iran in response to that country’s continuing uranium enrichment program. Speaking before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations later the same day, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testified that Washington and its P-5+1 partners [the five permanent SC members plus Germany],” had reached agreement on the draft of strong sanctions resolution, “with the cooperation of both Russia and China.”
The announcement came just one day after Iran signed a nuclear deal with Brazil and Turkey, presumably intended to mollify the international community. Under the arrangement, Iran agreed to send 1,200 kilograms of its low-enriched uranium (3.5% enriched) to Turkey, providing the United States, Russia, and France agreed to supply Iran with 120 kilograms of nuclear fuel (20% enriched), within one year to power its medical research reactor. Iran would begin shipping its LEU within a month of receiving such a commitment from the United States, Russia, and France. In the event that those countries reneged on the agreement, the LEU would be returned to Iran unconditionally.
Not surprisingly, the United States and Europe characterized the deal—virtually identical to a fuel-swap agreement negotiated between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Association the previous October but later rejected by Iran — as a ploy by Tehran to stave off sanctions and buy time for its nuclear program. 1
Regardless of the final outcome, Russia and China’s reversal of their long-held opposition to new Iran sanctions was an important breakthrough. In the following, I will attempt to analyze the developments leading up to Russia’s decision to support new economic sanctions against Iran.
Obstacles to Obama’s “Reset” Policy
In remarks addressed to a security conference in Munich in February 2009, Vice-President Joseph Biden stated as follows:
“The United States rejects the notion that NATO's gain is Russia's loss, or that Russia's strength is NATO's weakness. The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our Alliance. It is time— to paraphrase President Obama . . . to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.” 2
In the wake of these remarks, the notion of “resetting” US-Russian relations emerged as the key to the Obama administration’s strategic priorities with regard to Russia. As I stressed in a series of analyses last year, the key objective in the Obama administration’s Russia policy was securing Moscow’s cooperation on nuclear nonproliferation—a top priority of the administration, together with the war on terror—particularly in regard to Iran’s nuclear program.
In fact, the emphasis on Russian cooperation in reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions goes back to the administration of George W. Bush. Unfortunately, the fledgling partnership was effectively halted in August 2008, when the conflict in Georgia brought about an abrupt chill in relations between Moscow and Washington. The Obama administration’s policy was aimed at “resetting” relations with Russia and resuscitating bilateral cooperation to address the problem of Iran’s nuclear program.
To do so, it was necessary to eliminate two basic obstacles, both of them legacies of the Bush administration. The first was friction over political developments in former Soviet republics that Russia is determined to keep under its sphere of influence. The specific issue was the situation in Georgia and the Ukraine in the wake of the political upheavals of 2003 and 2004, respectively—the basic cause of the Georgian conflict of 2008, as most experts agree. The second obstacle was Russia’s concerns over US plans to deploy a missile defense system in the Eastern European states of Poland and the Czech Republic.
Clearing the Hurdles
The fact that Russia agreed to Washington’s draft resolution concerning sanctions on Iran suggests that Russia considered these obstacles removed. How exactly did that come about?
In September 2009, the Obama administration announced a wholesale revision of the Bush administration’s plans for deploying a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Bush administration had claimed that its deployment plan was targeted at a hypothetical intercontinental ballistic missile from Iran, but since Iran was nowhere near obtaining the long-range missile capability needed to strike the United States, the Russian military establishment suspected that the real objective was not to counter a threat from Iran but to neutralize Russia’s missile capability.
The Obama administration responded to those concerns with a plan to implement the system in four phases, with phase one (to 2011) limited to deployment in the Mediterranean of Aegis-class destroyers equipped with Standard Missile-3 (Block IA) detectors—the same as those already deployed in Japan—with the purpose of defending against the short-range (up to 1,000 km) and mid-range (1,000 km—3,000 km) missiles currently in Iran’s arsenal. 3 Although phase four still calls for development and deployment of a shield to intercept intercontinental missiles, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded positively to the new plan and very shortly thereafter began hinting at the possibility of imposing additional sanctions on Iran. Nonetheless, the Russian military’s lingering concerns over America’s missile shield plans became a factor during negotiations for a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, launched in April 2009. Linking nuclear arms reduction to the US missile defense system, the Russian side refused to agree to cuts in its arsenal in the absence of any limitations on the missile defense plan. 4 As a result, the signing of the New START pact, originally scheduled for December 2009, did not occur until April this year. In the end, the two sides resolved their differences by incorporating the linkage between arms reduction and the missile shield into the preamble but not the body of the treaty and including a provision whereby Moscow could pull out of the treaty if it decided that deployment of the US missile shield threatened Russia’s security. 5 In this way the conflict between Washington and Moscow over missile defense was put to rest, at least for the time being.
Another major development was the victory of Viktor Yanukovych in the Ukrainian presidential election in February this year. The election of the pro-Russian Yanukovych opened the way for bilateral agreements, concluded on April 21, under which Moscow promised to sell Ukraine Russian natural gas at a discount in exchange for a 25-year extension of the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease of Ukrainian naval bases, which had been set to expire in 2017. This all but ruled out the possibility of Ukraine’s entry into NATO in the foreseeable future, since NATO members are not permitted to host non-NATO military bases within their borders. 6
Sealing the Deal
At this point, only one significant obstacle remained to “resetting” US-Russia relations, and on May 10, Obama removed it by re-submitting the Agreement between the United States and Russia for Cooperation in the Field of Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy (commonly referred to as the US-Russia 123 Agreement) for review by Congress. The pact had been signed on April 6, 2008—the day before Vladimir Putin resigned as Russian president—and was on its way to receiving the congressional approval needed to put it into force effect when the conflict in Georgia broke out, and the Bush administration was compelled to withdraw the agreement. In fact, this was the only concrete measure the United States took to protest Russia’s actions in Georgia. Nonetheless, in a letter addressed to Congress appended to the agreement, Obama asserted that “the situation in Georgia need no longer be considered an obstacle to proceeding with the proposed Agreement” 7 —in effect accepting the situation that has prevailed since Russia recognized separatist South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states in the aftermath of the Georgia conflict.
Only days after Obama submitted the previously tabled 123 Agreement to Congress, Moscow officially agreed to tough new economic sanctions on Iran advocated by the Obama administration. The “resetting” of US-Russia relations had reached the final stages. (Translated from a report in Japanese published on May 24, 2010)
1 “US Is Skeptical on Iranian De al for Nuclear Fuel,” New Yor k Times , May 17, 2010.
3 “Obama Shifts Focus of Missile Shield,” Washington Post , Sept. 18, 2010.
4 “Genshtab: Strategicheskaya pro natzelena protiv Rosii,” Prime-Tass, Feb. 09, 2010.
5 “Obama i Medvedev podpisali dogovor ob SNV, Vedomosti , Apr. 08, 2010.
6 “Iz ukrainosti v krainosti, Kommersant , Apr. 22, 2010