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Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009

The biggest issue in Eurasia over the coming year will be the complex and knotted triangle between Russia, Iran and the United States. There are three reasons why this three-way tangle will be so critical this year: the Nabucco pipeline; the possible completion of the Iranian nuclear program (at least to a point where it can build a bomb); and the election of Barack Obama.

Obama first. The President-elect’s perceived openness towards Iran – a stance that is still more hawkish than many conservative governments elsewhere in the world would adopt – raises the possibility of dialogue with Tehran, and the possibility of direct talks between the arch-rivals. The issue is still extremely complex, and commentators have been lining up to offer an analysis of how to approach Iran, but the broad contours of Obama’s policy – a few less sticks, a few more carrots – are reasonably clear. The question is what happens next: will the offer of dialogue, and a possible loosening of the sanctions regime, be enough to stop Iran from completing its nuclear program or supporting entities such as Hamas and Hezbollah? The war in Gaza has done nothing to dampen Iranian commitment to supporting its proxies against Israel: it has probably done the opposite. Whilst Barack Obama refuses to take a stand against the Israelis (at least in the eyes of Tehran), the chances of such support being dropped are close to zero.

As for the nuclear program, 2009 could be the year in which the Islamic Republic finally reaches the point where it can build a bomb. It may, therefore, be so close that playing for time in its talks with Washington makes more strategic sense than stopping the centrifuges. For domestic purposes, 2009 is not the ideal year to begin dialogue. Iran’s presidential elections are due in June, which will politicise the issue of the nuclear program more than ever. The outcome of the election is in doubt, since President Ahmadinejad’s position has been increasingly shaky amid rising social discontent. However, his prospects have been bolstered by his vocal response to the Gaza crisis and, most interestingly, his apparent endorsement by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as reported over at Eurasianet. The unprecedented endorsement suggests that the religious-political establishment in Tehran is seriously concerned about the chances of reformist ex-president Mohammed Khatami in the election. It also implies that the clerical leadership is firmly committed to maintaining a hard line on the nuclear program, and approves of playing for time until a bomb is ready.

Assuming that the Iranians continue to stonewall America, albeit in a slightly more cordial atmosphere, what can the US and Europe offer as a tangible reward for good behaviour? The answer is Nabucco. The pipeline to bring Caspian gas to Europe still requires a supplier with huge, long-term gas reserves. Turkmenistan is the obvious option, but Iran has the infrastructure and the political will to supply the project. To limit the awkwardness of the deal for the West, Iran could agree to supply Turkey’s domestic needs, thus allowing Ankara to pump all of the Azeri/Turkmen gas on to Europe – Turkey has been insisting on its right to take a cut of Nabucco’s gas for domestic use. This would constitute a practical reward for Iran whilst still holding it at arm’s length from the European gas network.

Whether or not Tehran can be brought in from the cold depends in large part on Russia. Long-standing rumours that Moscow has sold advanced S-300 air defence systems to Iran were boosted in December when the Iranian state news agency claimed that delivery was underway (a claim Russia denied). These systems could prevent, or at the very least pose a major obstacle to, any US/Israeli airstrikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Whether or not Russia goes ahead with the delivery will be a key test of the relationship between the three powers. Russia may feel that the costs of supporting Tehran under the Obama administration outweigh the benefits, especially since in reality it has no interest in a nuclear-armed Iran.

2009 will probably be make-or-break time in the Russo-Iranian tactical alliance. Even if Moscow can be persuaded to curtail its support to Tehran, however, Europe and the US will still have problems in their relationship with Russia in the year ahead. Principally, these revolve around European missile defence – an issue on which Barack Obama has shown willingness to compromise, in order to reduce Russian fears – and the expansion of NATO to Georgia and Ukraine. The danger of confrontation over these issues will be exacerbated by Russia’s increasing domestic woes. The collapse of oil and gas prices over recent months has, according to many Russia-watchers, begun to weaken the social contract which has allowed the Kremlin to stifle social unrest by ensuring a steady rise in living standards. The contracting economy has increased competition for jobs, contributing to a surge in xenophobic nationalism which the Kremlin will have to co-opt to reduce further dissent. In such a situation, Russia’s foreign policy may become increasingly aggressive in order to deflect criticism of its economic performance (although the reverse – that economic weakness will lead to a more humble, co-operative Russia, has also been argued). The awkward division of power between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin will also inevitably come under strain during the financial crisis.

So the West will need to tread carefully in the coming year: it poses great opportunities for progress in the relationship with Russia and Iran, if handled correctly: Russia can be brought on side (if not provoked) and Iran can be isolated from Moscow’s assistance, which could prove critical in the stand-off over the nuclear programme. However, the risks in 2009 are huge. If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, the rules of the game in Eurasia and the Middle East will change dramatically. Should this occur in tandem with the rise of a nationalist, fractious and divided Moscow, the risks of conflict or instability in Eurasia could become extremely high.

"Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009" | 1 comment | Search Discussion
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by Anonymous on Tue Feb 24, 2009 7:55 am
I must confess that I agree with your analysis. Please, allow me to play the "Kreml" rolle. If I were the Kreml, I´d rather use the financial crisis as a great chance to expand my (political) control upon the Ukraine (Crimea could be the first territorial temptative), if possible in a "pacific" way. The worst scenario: a civil war this year or some kind of repartition of Ukraine with the EU (Poland in the first place). If I were the Kreml, in the middle of the "fog of war" in the North Caucausus, and using as well as "alibi" the Nagorno-Karabaj conflict, other second objective could be Azerbaiyan as well, and so the "stability" by the means of arms is restored and by the way the entire control on the natural resources in this area of interest (Clausewitz reloaded?). Of course, trying to maintain Turkey as neutral as possible. If I were the Kremlin, the USA can not win in Afganistan, because after "controlling" Irak, the next "Liberty and Country" military operation will be most probably against Iran. The simple conclusion could be: helping Iran is good for the Kreml. Concerning the finantial crisis in Russia, a self-made or home made "putsch" followed by a dictatorship further controlled by Putin could be a possible scenario. The worst scenario: a "russian-ultranationalist" dictatorship (and "good bye, Estonia"). If I were the Kreml, and knowing that I have not good press in such countries like the UK, Norway, Poland or the Baltic States, the solution pass through Germany and France. In my opinion, Italy and Spain are only temporary steps (and they think "locally"), in order to achieve other global aims concerning gas and oil in Northern Africa (ie. Argel, Libia) and Latin America (ie. Venezuela, Bolivia). Now I understand what Sarah Palin minded when she said: "I can see Russia from my house". If I were Russian, I would enlist the Russian Marines Corp: "Tam gdzie my, tam -pobieda!"



  Caspian Compromise Backfires for Russia and Iran, CU Issue 83, November 24, 2010
  Turkey in a Tight Spot on Missile Defense, CU Issue 82, November 11, 2010
  The OSCE and Kyrgyzstan’s Election, CU Issue 81, October 30, 2010
  Unblocking the US-Azerbaijan Relationship, CU Issue 80, October 07, 2010
  Nabucco Pipeline: Quo Vadis?, CU Issue 79, September 30, 2010
  Russia tightens its grip in the South Caucasus, CU Issue 78, August 23, 2010
  Armenian Politics: Rigidity Versus Flexibility, CU Issue 77, August 10, 2010
  Russia and Georgia: Ready To Talk?, CU Issue 76, July 21, 2010
  Can the US walk and chew gum at the same time?, CU Issue 75, July 9, 2010
  The Kyrgyzstan Crisis – A Qualified Success for Turkish Diplomacy?, CU Issue 74, June 24, 2010
  Brussels downgrades the Caucasus, CU Issue 73, June 07, 2010
  NATO’s New Strategic Concept and the Caspian Region, CU Issue 72, June 01, 2010
  Joe Biden and European Security, CU Issue 71, May 13, 2010
  Behind the US-Azerbaijan row, CU Issue 70, May 6, 2010
  Turkey and Iran: The risks of failure, CU Issue 69, April 30, 2010
  Kazakhstan, the OSCE, and the crisis in Kyrgyzstan, CU Issue 68, April 19, 2010
  The Implications of the Moscow Bombings, CU Issue 67, April 12, 2010
  Iran Manoeuvres for a role in Karabakh, CU Issue 66, April 5, 2010
  The EU and Abkhazia: Between a rock and a hard place, CU Issue 65, March 16, 2010
  Fallout from the US ‘Genocide’ vote, CU Issue 64, March 9, 2010
  Ukraine's elections and future of GUAM, CU Issue 63, February 10, 2010
  Less Democracy, More Security: Kazakhstan and the OSCE, CU Issue 62, January 18, 2010
  Tackling the North Caucasus Insurgency: Development or Rhetoric?, CU Issue 61, January 11, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 60, January 4, 2010
  The Caspian Region in 2010, CU Issue 59, December 31, 2009
  The Turkmenistan-China Pipeline Changes the Energy Balance, CU Issue 58, December 21, 2009
  Russia’s European Security Treaty, CU Issue 57, December 7, 2009
  The ‘Kidnapping War’ in Georgia and its Implications, CU Issue 56, December 3, 2009
  Azerbaijan Shifts its Energy Priorities, CU Issue 55, November 23, 2009
  The South Caucasian States and Afghanistan, CU Issue 54, November 11, 2009
  Is Turkey turning East?, CU Issue 53, November 2, 2009
  What is Russia’s Gameplan for Iran?, CU Issue 52, October 26, 2009
  Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan: Where Next?, CU Issue 51, October 19, 2009
  The Armenians of Georgia: A New Flashpoint in the Caucasus?, CU Issue 50, October 12, 2009
  Turkey’s EU Membership: Will The ‘Armenian Opening’ Help?, CU Issue 49, October 5, 2009
  The Missile Defence Shift: Implications for the Caucasus, CU Issue 48, September 22, 2009
  Rising Tensions in the Black Sea , CU Issue 47, September 14, 2009
  Armenia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan: The Clock Is Ticking, CU Issue 46, September 7, 2009
  The Battle of the Bases in Central Asia, CU Issue 45, August 31, 2009
  Russia, Israel, and the S-300s, CU Issue 44, August 24, 2009
  The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009
  The Implications of the Turkmenistan-Azerbaijan Dispute, CU Issue 42, August 10, 2009
  What has changed since the August war?, CU Issue 41, August 3, 2009
  The Internal Dynamics of Armenia’s Karabakh Policy, CU Issue 40, July 20, 2009
  Gazprom’s Baku Triumph, CU Issue 39, July 06, 2009
  Ingushetia: The New Chechnya?, CU Issue 38, June 29, 2009
  Georgias Economy - A Matter for Diplomats, CU Issue 37, June 22, 2009
  ‘Progress’ In The Nagorno-Karabakh Peace Process, CU Issue 36, June 08, 2009
  Iran's Azerbaijanis and the presidential election, CU Issue 35, June 01, 2009
  Nabucco and South Stream - The Race Heats Up, CU Issue 34, May 25, 2009
  China and Central Asia, CU Issue 33, May 19, 2009
  Russia, Georgia, and NATO - A Bad Week, CU Issue 32, May 11, 2009
  The Obama Administration’s Emerging Caucasus Policy, CU Issue 31, April 27, 2009
  Integration and Division in the Caspian Sea, CU Issue 30, April 20, 2009
  The Turkish-Armenian Rapprochement - Implications for the South Caucasus, CU Issue 29, April 13, 2009
  Turkey's local elections and Armenian issue, CU Issue 28, April 6, 2009
  Is There Life Left In The Nabucco Project?, CU Issue 27, March 30, 2009
  Problems and Prospects for Russian Military Reform, CU Issue 26, March 23, 2009
  Russia and Georgia: Not back to war, CU Issue 25, March 16, 2009
  Armenia: Heading towards crisis?, CU Issue 24, March 9, 2009
  Drug trafficking in the Caucasus, CU Issue 23, February 23, 2009
  Russian-led military block: A real counterweight to NATO?, CU Issue 22, February 16, 2009
  Are the International Missions in Georgia still relevant?, CU Issue 21, February 9, 2009
  Israel and Azerbaijan: Baku’s Balancing Act, CU Issue 20, February 2, 2009
  The North Caucasus in 2009: A Bleak Forecast, CU Issue 19, January 26, 2009
  The Military Balance in Nagorno-Karabakh, CU Issue 18, January 19, 2009
  Russia, Iran, and Barack Obama in 2009, Part II, CU Issue 17, January 12, 2009
  Looking forward to 2009 in the Caucasus and beyond, Part I, CU Issue 16, January 5, 2009
  The opportunities and the risks of NATO’s new supply routes, CU Issue 15, December 22, 2008
  The Black Sea Ambitions of Armenia, CU Issue 14, December 15, 2008
  Another Small Step for Nabucco, CU Issue 13, December 8, 2008
  Will Saakashvili survive politically?, CU Issue 12, December 1, 2008
  The latest fashion: conflict mediation, CU Issue 11, November 24, 2008
  The Baku Energy Summit, CU Issue 10, November 17, 2008
  Obama and the Caucasus, CU Issue 9, November 10, 2008
  Kazakhstan's oil options, CU Issue 8, November 3, 2008
  Is the Minsk Group being sidelined?, CU Issue 7, October 27, 2008
  Gas and oil developments in the Caspian region, CU Issue 6, October 20, 2008
  Where next for the Georgian peace process?, CU Issue 5, October 8, 2008
  Unrest in the North Caucasus, CU Issue 4, September 29, 2008
  Saakashvili's future, CU Issue 3, September 22, 2008
  Iran after the Georgian War, CU Issue 2, September 15, 2008
  Football diplomacy, CU Issue 1, September 8, 2008
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