The new strategy conceived by US president Barack Obama assigns Russia a cooperative role as America's primary ally in the Afghanistan conflict and senior partner in a joint isolation and containment policy for compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear aspirations, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources report.
A similar strategy has been tried before.
Eight years ago, in the aftershock of al Qaeda's 9/11 attacks in the US, the newly-elected George W. Bush took up Russian president Vladimir Putin's offer of full cooperation for war on global Islamic terror.
The partnership was short-lived because the two presidents had different ideas about the meaning of “full cooperation.”
Putin expected to work with the US president as an equal. He saw America and Russia as the world's two superpowers acting shoulder to shoulder, first to vanquish Islamist extremism, then tackle global problems. Those were the days that Bush could remark that he had full trust in Putin as a personal friend.
But quite soon, in the second half of 2002, the trust began to crumble. Putin resented Washington's practice of arbitrarily choosing the assistance it wanted from Moscow – mostly picking Russian intelligence brains on al-Qaeda and Afghanistan – and Bush's expectation that Moscow would line up behind his policies.
So he stalled. Refusing to go along with US plans to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, Putin hoped to dissuade the US president from what he regarded as a foolhardy adventure by warning him that Saddam had a vicious guerrilla war ready to greet the US army.
The warning did not register. In 2003, the invasion went forward and since then, US troops have been embroiled in three major conflicts: Afghanistan, Iraq and the war on Islamist terror.
US-Russian partnership develops exponentially
Ten months after moving into the Oval office, Bush's successor is hard at work resuscitating the US-Russian alliance of 2001. Obama is ready to be a lot more forthcoming than Bush in exchange for an active Russian role not only in Afghanistan but in radical steps for isolating and containing Iran. He believes those steps will finally crack the Iranian nut and put an end to its drive for an arsenal of nuclear bombs and warheads.
Turning his back on lingering Cold War hang-ups, the US president is offering Moscow strategic incentives and equal status in joint efforts to solve global issues to an extent never contemplated by Bush or any other US president before him. He made this pitch when he met Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow last April and during three months of quiet interchanges with the Kremlin led by his Deputy National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon.
The Russian leaders were skeptical at first of Obama's motives. He tried to win them over, according to our sources, by proposing that the relationship evolve modularly without bombastic announcements. The two governments would go forward one step at a time, giving each a chance to ascertain that the other was meeting its reciprocal commitments. If the Russian side felt the Americans were not keeping to their side of the bargain, a direct line to Obama was open to them for appeal.
Obama postulated six premises as the points of departure for his strategy:
1. Contemporary economic and military facts of life have given Washington and Moscow more common interests than meet the eye. To maintain world power status, they need to join forces.
2. By gaining Russian military and political assistance in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US could forego Iran's help, a turnaround from Obama's belief at the outset of this presidency that Tehran's input was essential for solving the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
Israel's military strike put on hold
3. The US and Russia share a common interest in containing Iran, and especially its nuclear program.
4. US-Russian cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran could bypass and choke off growing Chinese influence in those countries.
5. A working American-Russian partnership would save the two powers from having to deal with the Muslim world from opposite sides – the US backing the mainstream Sunni Muslims and Russia behind the Shiites, meaning Iran. This kind of polarization is a bitter legacy of the Cold War which President Obama would be happy to leave behind and move on.
6. Washington and Moscow share an overriding interest in preventing an Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear installations. This was urgent enough to be dealt with in one of the opening steps of the two-power tango, bringing Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Moscow on a not-quite-secret trip for talks with prime minister Putin on Sept. 7.
Moscow chose a less-than-flattering description of Netanyahu when they leaked word of the encounter, whereas high-placed Washington sources familiar with the subject marked it: high importance. They revealed the Russians gave their Israeli visitor more than a pledge to hold back advanced weapons systems from Iran including S-300 anti-missile weapons; Netanyahu received Putin's personal guarantee of a joint effort with Washington to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands.
Netanyahu, in his turn, gave the Kremlin no promises, refusing to take Israel's military option against Iran off the table. He merely indicated that American and Russian success in exorcising the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran would make an Israeli attack unnecessary.
The US-Russian partnership was thus put on trial before Israel made any commitments. It was the first test run for Obama's modular strategy with Moscow. It worked insofar as one potential fire was put on hold by their joint effort.
Drama before cameras masks scripted performance
Obama's next move occurred ten days later. On Sep. 17, he announced the US was dropping the Bush plan to deploy anti-ballistic intercept missiles and radar systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama also promised to confer with Moscow on the new locations for defense systems against Iranian missiles.
Then, on Sep. 25, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh, Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British prime minister Gordon Brown, staged a dramatic appearance. One by one, they announced Iran had been discovered hiding a second Iranian uranium-enriching nuclear facility near Qom and sternly gave Tehran two weeks to open the facility to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection.
Far from being bowled over by this “new discovery,” the three Western leaders were working to a prepared script.
By then, Obama had been informed by the Russians, the French president and European Union foreign affairs executive Javier Solana, of Iran's consent to the inspection and willingness to send low-grade enriched uranium to Russia for reprocessing up to 19.75 percent. The Russian leaders assured him that Iran's transfer of its entire enriched product would give Moscow full supervision over quantities and control over the level of enrichment.
Using the private channels they had set up, they persuaded Obama to relinquish as unfeasible his stipulation that Iran forego uranium enrichment altogether as ordered by UN Security Council resolutions.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources disclose that to bring Tehran round to the two concessions, Moscow promised to finish building and activating Iran's first atomic reactor at Bushehr after dragging its feet for years. This promise produced the Oct. 6 statement by Iran’s Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi that the final test run of Iran's first nuclear power plant would begin in days. Salehi, who heads Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said the plant was 96% complete, almost all of the equipment had been installed and after testing the plant would become fully operational.
Viewed through the prism of the new US-Russian partnership, its first step has been a success, provided of course that Iran abides by its promise to Moscow and sends Russia its entire stock of enriched uranium for reprocessing.
To find out what Moscow gets from Washington in return for this cooperation and how it can help the US in Afghanistan, see the next article.