Going Nuclear: Will Russia Stop Iran?

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Moscow might cooperate with American efforts to contain the Iranian nuclear program. If so, that would be a major reversal of policy -- the Kremlin was key in stopping a fourth set of Washington-sponsored U.N. Security Council sanctions last summer and has been supplying the Iranians with crucial nuclear technology.

In fact, the Kremlin is key in just about everything involving the Islamic Republic. Tehran has two major supporters: Moscow and Beijing. Short of using force, nothing can be done about Iran as long as the mullahs retain both sponsors. With the Russians helping the Iranians, the Chinese -- who compete with Moscow in the Middle East for influence -- will also want to help. Strip Russia away from Iran, however, and China can be forced to withdraw support as well. In this case, the United States can make Beijing choose sides. As difficult as the Chinese can be, they do not want to be put on the spot and held responsible for the actions of crazed Iranians. When they have had cover, China's leaders have invariably engaged in grossly irresponsible behavior. But when they have been isolated, they have almost always been accommodating.

Peeling the Russians away from Iran, therefore, would be a major coup for the Obama administration. So it is no surprise that Washington offered a deal to the Kremlin when Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns visited Moscow in mid-February. Then, the State Department's third-ranking official said there would be no need for missile defense in Europe if Iran no longer had a nuclear weapons program. This arrangement also seems to have been raised in a letter Obama sent his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev, in the middle of last month.

Of course, a deal with President Medvedev would be consistent with Washington's goals to hit the "reset button" with the Kremlin. And the concept of a fresh start is indeed attractive. Who, after all, wants to refight the Cold War? Moreover, it should be possible for Washington to trade away missile defense for defanging Tehran. For one thing, Russia has no interest in adding another nuclear-armed neighbor, no matter how friendly it may be at this moment. Russian expressions of concern about the latest Iranian satellite launch also seem genuine. Furthermore, the small and rudimentary missile defense system contemplated at this moment -- only 10 interceptors based in Poland -- is useful for protecting Europe only against missiles launched from Iran. Consequently, a proposed deal along these lines makes sense for both parties.