September 18, 2009
by Meir Javedanfar
The stated goal of the US’s missile shield programme, which was devised during the Bush administration, was to defend the US against any missiles launched from Iran. However, the Russian government, especially the prime minister, Vladimir Putin, opposed it, for several reasons. It saw the programme as a challenge to Russia’s own long-range missiles, important components of Russia’s strategy of reasserting itself into the global arena as a superpower. Furthermore, plans to base the missiles in Czech Republic and Poland, countries which once were under Russian control, were also considered as provocative and even insulting to Moscow.
Russia’s leadership was so infuriated that it even went as far as threatening military action to dissuade the US and the host countries from deploying the system. This was an unprecedented move in Russia’s post-cold war relations with the west. It was also a strong indication of the threat Moscow felt and how far it was willing to go to stop it from materialising.
To some, especially American neoconservatives, Washington’s decision to scrap the system may be interpreted as capitulation to Russia.
However, if we look at the timing of the decision and the reaction from Moscow, we can see that President Obama may have a bigger goal in mind; preventing Iran from becoming armed with nuclear weapons.
With talks between the P5+1 (consisting of the US, Russia, China, UK, France and Germany) and Iran scheduled for 1 October, Obama has been trying to ensure that the west enters the negotiations with a strong hand. To achieve this goal he has devised a multi-faceted strategy, which consisted of reaching out to the Muslim world through his Cairo speech, stabilising Iraq and increasing his efforts to restart talks between Israelis and Palestinians. He also reached out to the Iranian government through two letters to the Iranian supreme leader, as well as his New Year message to the people of Iran.
All these efforts slowly started to put Iran’s leadership on the back foot. Suddenly, it was deprived from its two main battle cries. One was that America was against the Muslim world and the other that the US had ambitions to apply regime change in Iran. This panicked Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which is why he decided to back Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in presidential elections, apparently allowing extensive fraud in his favour.
With the regime’s legitimacy severely damaged domestically after the recent demonstrations, and its foreign influence weakened after Hezbollah’s defeat in the Lebanese elections, the Iranian government became even more dependent on support from Russia and China.
This is especially true after the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s statement last week that Moscow would not back further sanctions against Iran. After this, the importance of Russia to Iran’s leaders as one of its two pillars of support in the UN security council increased even further.
However, such sense of comfort in Tehran was unexpectedly dashed yesterday, after the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, stated what many consider to be a U-turn, by making a strong hint in his speech that Russia could now back tougher sanctionsagainst Iran.
This is a severe setback for Iran, as it is very possible that Russia would do this. Moscow has let Tehran down before, and it could do so again.
However the question remains: did the recent Russian overture come about as part of a deal with Washington, whereby in return for scrapping the missile shield programme, Moscow would back the US in its efforts to impose tougher sanctions against Iran?
Judging by statements made by Obama during a trip to Prague in April this year, the answer seems positive. During that trip, he linked the missile system issue to the Iranian nuclear programme. He suggested that a it could be discarded. “If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defence construction in Europe at this time will be removed,” the US president said. The fact that the US scrapped this system the day after Medvedev’s statement further backs the theory that a deal was made, especially since Russian backing for sanctions could eliminate the Iranian threat, as Obama put it.
Should Russia desert Iran’s side and join the west, China could find itself standing alone. Under such circumstances, its leadership could also decide that the cost of supporting Iran far outweighs the benefits. This would mean that the US achieved two goals, with one move.
Obama’s decision shows that the US president is prioritising. Although the missile defence shield is important, stopping Iran from becoming armed with nuclear weapons is far more vital. America could always replace the system in the future. It has no “point of no return”. But Iran’s path to becoming a nuclear state does, and the US president seems to be applying smart chess moves to prevent this from happening.