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Russia Signaling Interest in Deal on Iran, Analysts Say
Still, Obama Effort Faces Obstacles

By Philip P. Pan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 18, 2009

As President Obama seeks to recast relations with Russia and persuade it to help contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he must win over leaders who are deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions and who have long been reluctant to damage what they consider a strategic partnership with Iran. But the Kremlin has indicated it is willing to explore a deal with Washington, and analysts say it may be more open to new sanctions against Iran than expected.

The Obama administration has all but decided not to make a new push for sanctions until after it tries engaging Iran diplomatically and improving ties with Moscow, according to administration officials and Russia analysts. If the overture to Iran fails, as many expect, administration officials believe they will be able to make a stronger case for sanctions to Russian leaders they hope will be more invested in a new relationship with the United States.

In a meeting last week with a bipartisan commission studying U.S. policy toward Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev expressed alarm in "very graphic language" over Iran's successful test launch of a satellite last month, linking it to Tehran's nuclear program, said Dmitri Simes, director of the commission.

"Medvedev said it demonstrated how far-reaching Iran's nuclear ambitions are, and that he was very concerned," said Simes, who is also president of the Nixon Center in Washington. "He felt it was a clear challenge to both Russian and American interests and said he would like both countries to work on this challenge together."

In another sign of Russian concern, Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar traveled to Moscow last month for talks that were expected to focus on delivery of Russia's advanced S-300 antiaircraft missile system, which Iran says it has signed a contract to buy. But Russian media reported that the Kremlin informed him it was putting the deal on hold. Both the United States and Israel have objected to the sale.

In remarks during Najar's visit, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov denied that Russia was toughening its stand toward Iran, but called for intensification of international efforts to settle the nuclear standoff. He appeared to accept the Obama administration's argument that progress on the Iranian issue could help remove another major problem in U.S.-Russia relations -- American plans to build a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe.

Simes said Russian leaders appear to be signaling their interest in striking a strategic bargain with Washington. "They want to send a message to the Obama administration that they're prepared to have a new relationship, but it will have to be quid pro quo," he said. "If they have to sacrifice their special relationship with Iran, they want to see a change in their relationship with the United States."

Russia has backed three rounds of sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council but blocked a fourth set of sanctions last summer as relations between Washington and Moscow soured after the Russian-Georgian war in August. In the meeting last week, Simes said, Medvedev indicated that Russia was willing to consider "serious sanctions" against Iran but argued that sanctions alone would not be enough and should be accompanied by a new package of incentives for Iran to cooperate.

What Obama is willing to offer to either Russia or Iran is unclear. The administration is conducting separate internal reviews of U.S. policy toward Iran and Russia, and administration officials declined to discuss the strategy on the record while the reviews are ongoing.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has already said Iran will be invited to an international conference on Afghanistan in The Hague on March 31. Other moves under consideration in the policy review include low-level contacts in countries where both the United States and Iran have embassies, further discussions on cooperation in Afghanistan and a proposal for each country to open a representative office in the other's capital.

Meanwhile, the administration has said it plans to "reset" relations with Russia and quickly engage Moscow in nuclear arms control talks. After meeting in Geneva this month, Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to make a priority of negotiating a pact to replace the landmark Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is set to expire in December. Clinton said she wanted Obama and Medvedev to have a general plan for a new treaty before they meet for the first time at the Group of 20 summit in London on April 2.

Administration officials believe putting the arms control talks at the top of the agenda will reinforce Russia's self-image as an equal partner that shares the same goals as the United States. At the same time, the administration appears to be playing down high-profile issues that angered Russia during the Bush administration, including the missile defense shield and the push to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. Other moves under discussion include a drive to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, the Cold War-era measure imposing trade sanctions on Russia and other countries because of human rights violations.

But Russian analysts said the administration's approach faces several hurdles. Russia does not want Iran to build a nuclear weapon, but it sees the problem with less urgency than the United States and believes the prolonged standoff with Tehran gives it leverage over Washington. In addition, analysts said, Russia's leaders will be wary because previous administrations promised better relations but then ignored Russian concerns on issues such as missile defense and NATO expansion.

Russian leaders may also prefer to continue demonizing the United States to divert public anger as Russia weathers a severe economic crisis, said Georgy Mirsky, a foreign policy scholar at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.

Vladimir Sotnikov, a research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said U.S. officials overestimate Russia's influence on Iran and underestimate the Islamic republic's strategic value to the Kremlin. Russia sees Iran as an important partner in a volatile neighborhood, and it appreciates, and worries about, Iran's influence on Muslim populations in southern Russia and in the neighboring countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia, he said.

At the same time, Russia can apply only limited economic pressure on Iran, he said. With less than $3 billion in bilateral trade annually, far behind Japan, China, Germany and Italy, Russia doesn't make the list of Iran's top 10 trading partners.

Alexander Pikayev, a top arms control scholar in Moscow, said Russian policy toward Iran will be determined by competing interest groups and political factions. Defense manufacturers and the atomic energy industry oppose tougher sanctions, for example, but the United States could win over the latter by reviving a bilateral pact on civilian nuclear cooperation that was frozen after the Georgian war, he said.

Pikayev said Medvedev may be more likely to support sanctions because a breakthrough in U.S. relations would boost his political stature at home and set him apart from his powerful predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Putin might resist, but his relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is said to be strained and he surprised Russia's foreign policy establishment by endorsing earlier U.N. sanctions, Pikayev said.

"The consensus for improved relations with the United States is wider than for any Iran policy," Pikayev said. "That gives the U.S. some room to maneuver."

Pan reported from Moscow, and DeYoung reported from Washington.

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