Russian president Dmitry Medvedev spoke kindly about “opening a new page in Russian-American relations” Tuesday, March 10, at a meeting with members of a US commission set up last year to help direct Russian policy.
“Unfortunately,” he remarked, “our relations have deteriorated very significantly in recent years. The signals we are receiving today from the US – I mean most of all the signals I am receiving from President Obama – seem to be quite positive.”
A few hours later, an anonymous source in Moscow informed the Interfax news agency that the possibility of “shelving the delivery of advanced S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran was not excluded.” The question must be decided at a political level, especially as the contract was purely commercial, said the source. The contract was signed in 2005 but delivery has still not taken place.
On March 3, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a button mislabeled “supercharged” instead of “reset” to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, its recipient stressed that the issues of missiles to Iran “…are decided exclusively within the law and Russian national regulations… We are supplying non-stabilizing defense weapons,” he added.
But then Lavrov allowed, “We fully take into account concerns voiced by our US and Israeli partners and favor intensification of work on proposals made by the Group of Five plus One, which include… the start of equal talks with Iran and other regional states to ensure common security.”
Moscow appeared to be signaling that a reassessment of its supply of the S-300 missiles to Tehran was possible in certain conditions.
Russia will help US handle Iran – but not by arm-twisting
This hint, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Moscow and Washington sources, came in the wake of assessments in Washington that Israel is fast approaching the decisive moment for military action against Iran's nuclear program. Jerusalem may be tipped over into a sense of compulsion by the approaching delivery of those Russian S-300 missiles before they make a strike extremely difficult, if not impossible.
The Kremlin sounds like offering to cooperate with the Americans in preventing an Israeli attack.
Furthermore, Lavrov's reference to “the start of equal talks with Iran and other regional states to ensure common security” was taken in Washington as applying to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria.
It was translated as meaning that if Syria, which Moscow regards as an ally, is included in America's Middle East strategy – and its plans for locating Russian Mediterranean bases on the Syrian coast are not impaired – Russia would be ready to persuade Tehran that the Obama administration's agenda is not aimed at isolating the Islamic Republic but meant as an opening gambit for negotiations. As seen by Moscow, the fresh round of talks would not be steered by the Europeans as in the last two years, but by Arab rulers with Washington and Moscow participating.
Moscow is offering to help Washington to bring about Iran's withdrawal from its nuclear weapons program – but not by twisting Tehran's arm, only by persuasion. The Russians are ready to engage Iran with the US on their own terms, i.e. without humbling the Islamic Republic and with the Obama and Medvedev administrations working as equals with Arab partners.
This was not exactly the fresh start with Russia that the Obama administration had in mind – and a whole lot more than the US president bargained for when he called for Moscow's involvement in dealing with Iran – but the White House may take up the Russian offer, because it offers the opportunity of a successful summit in London on April 1, the first Obama-Medvedev face to face meeting. An understanding, however limited, on the Iranian issue could open the way for cooperation on other thorny matters, starting with Afghanistan and moving on to the Caucasian, Central Asia, and Europe, up to the US missile shield controversy with Russia.
Moscow seeks role as Middle East matchmaker
So if it gets its way, Moscow would gain a lead role, initially as key matchmaker between the Obama administration and Tehran and the leverage for bringing Shiite Tehran and senior Arab Sunni elements to the same table.
The Russians have coveted a pivotal role in Middle East and Persian Gulf affairs since 2000.
But they are not prepared to sacrifice their inside track in Tehran. Hence, Lavrov's comment at the end of February: “At issue also is involving Iran [in any negotiation] on an equal, worthy basis in efforts to resolve the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, as well as in all aspects of a Middle East settlement.”
Moscow's position is that giving Iran an “equal, worthy” status in one set of negotiations will pave the way to Russian-US deals on other questions on the same basis.
Tehran has not reacted to the agenda Moscow has proposed to Washington, any more than it has to Obama's moves to sideline the Islamic Republic by clubbing Saudi Arabia and Egypt with Syria.
But a pointer to its position was noted by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources in a remark made by ex-president Hashemi Rafsanjani, a close adviser to Iran's supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on February 27.
He called the test-run carried out at the Iran's first atomic reactor built at Bushehr by Russia that week “a fairly big step,” but went on to warn that “the enemies of the Islamic Republic of Iran” may try to convince Russia to halt its work on the plant.
“However, the Russians and others should be aware that Iran has reached such a level that even if they do not come, we ourselves will be able to complete the Bushehr plant,” Rafsanjani said.
This authoritative Iranian was telling Moscow that his country no longer needed Russian favors; it could manage on its own without Russian help on the atomic reactor – and on other matters too.