Russian President Putin has decided to no longer cooperate with the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear deal. It’s simply not in his interest to do so. After all, if the deal is successful, Iranian oil will flow on the world market and the price will continue to drop. This fact cannot benefit Russia. Neither can an American-Iran entente. Russia needs the US to be hung up over Iran and bogged down in the region. Without a nuclear deal the US will remain stuck in the Middle East, and events in Europe and East Asia will not be able to have Washington’s complete attention. Therefore, Putin has seriously broken the arms embargo on Iran by promising a shipment of ground-to-air missiles (S-300’s) by the end of the year. It’s not just Russia that has broken the sanctions regime; China recently announced a major pipeline project linking Iranian natural gas with Pakistan and India. But it is in Moscow where the real unraveling of the nuclear deal is taking place.
In a matter of two days, Putin has placed serious impediments to Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. First, the Russian foreign ministry announced that it was the American fact sheet on the nuclear framework which was the correct interpretation. This was in direct contradiction to the statement by the Iranian supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. After a weeklong period without saying a word about the negotiations, Khamenei declared that all sanctions would be lifted as soon as the deal was signed. According to him, this had been agreed upon in Switzerland. Furthermore, he stated unequivocally that the inspection protocol would not include any Iranian military facilities. Both of these conditions are indeed “deal killers”. President Obama had declared that the inspection protocol would be “unprecedented” in its scope. But how could inspectors even know where to look for Iranian cheating without a full accounting of previous military research and access to all potential sites?
Next, and within twenty-four hours, Putin initiates the sale of advanced defensive missiles to Iran. The Russian chess master has struck again, and brilliantly. By agreeing with Obama and Kerry on the fact sheet controversy, Putin has placed the onus of any signed agreement on the Ayatollah’s capitulation. Putin knows it is far more likely that the Obama administration would relent on sanctions and inspectors, well before Iran would. And by sending advanced anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, the Russian president not only severely complicates the military option but also emphasizes that any “snap-back” in the sanction regime will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. So much for Obama’s much daunted Russian cooperation. The US president has been bragging about his six-party nuclear coalition (G-5+1) for years. But world geopolitics have changed dramatically in the last year.
Events in Europe and East Asia have bifurcated the global scene and made great power coordination far less likely. Once again the Obama foreign policy has been constrained by its myopia. A year ago, the US was foolish to be led around by the French and the Germans over the future of the Ukraine. Obama should have put his foot down over the illegal coup by right-wing extremist groups in Kiev. Instead of pushing the Russians into a corner over further potential NATO-EU expansion, Obama should’ve been the wise leader and warned his European allies that the US would not tolerate such a provocative move. But Obama is not only a poor international leader, he is a terrible negotiator. Because of a failed European foreign policy, Obama has telegraphed his burning desire for some kind of international legacy.
The Middle East has not been Obama’s strong point. He totally failed in Iraq by not supporting Ayad Alawi in the 2010 election. In fact, by throwing US support behind Nouri al Maliki, Obama undid nearly four years of US effort to put Iraq on the track toward a possible pluralistic democratic future. It is only the famed Obama arrogance which refuses to acknowledge the salient facts of the Iraqi election of 2010. In Syria, Obama watched indifferently as democratic forces were mowed down in the streets by Assad and his Iranian advisors. So everyone in the region knew that by cooperating with Iran, first in Iraq and then in Syria, Obama was in search of some kind of “working relationship” with Tehran. For six-and-a-half years, this American president has totally alienated every ally the US has in the Middle East. With an East Asian policy that hasn’t changed since 1945, not to mention the debacle in Europe, naturally Obama needs some kind of foreign policy legacy.
The Iranians know this better than anyone. So why wouldn’t Iran’s supreme leader hold out for even more US concessions? He’s not a fool. Anyone can see a good thing right before their very eyes. In fact, the whole world has taken a measure of Barack H. Obama and found him to be less than clear on America’s role in the world, and sometimes surprisingly naïve. This has led to one foreign policy disaster after another. He has lost the reset with Russia, squandered his relationship with China over his much-advertised “pivot to Asia”, and completely unnerved all of America’s friends in the Middle East. Now, once again, he has been outmaneuvered by Putin.
So where is all this leading? The simple answer is that there probably won’t be a nuclear deal with Iran, but the negotiations will continue past the June 30th deadline. In other words, at least until the end of this year, the 2013 interim nuclear agreement will remain in place. Obama cannot afford to backslide on sanctions and verification. The Republicans will crucify Hillary Clinton and the Democrats if Obama’s “unprecedented” inspection regime becomes anything less than that. But by the end of the year, the advanced Russian S-300’s will be in place guarding the Iranian nuclear facilities. This places everyone in quite a quandary. Has Russia decided to live with an Iranian nuclear bomb? Will America? And what will Israel do? Time is running very short.
Obama has gambled everything on a bad nuclear deal with Iran, and now the Ayatollah has decided he needs more. Putin has used the discrepancies in the dueling fact sheets to place Obama in a corner where, in order to extract himself, the young American president would have to agree to further concessions. This he simply cannot do. So in a few short months, and at the height of the American election season, Iran will be a twist of screwdriver away from nuclear weapons. They will also be in the possession of the advanced missiles needed to protect their nuclear program from attack. Talk about a lack of US leadership, this turn of events is slowly but surely becoming historic. Instead of a successful foreign policy legacy he could at least point to, Obama appears to be stuck with disaster.
But where does this leave Israel and the region? The nations of the Middle East must decide whether they want to stay on their current path, which is leading to a nuclear arms race sooner rather than later. Or sometime before 2016 do they want to use the offices of the Russian president (and the entire G-5+1) to begin the process of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Only such a zone could persuade President Putin to reinitiate high-level talks with Washington over the future of the Middle East as well as future European security. Certainly the lifting of sanctions against the Russian Federation would become an early element of such an important meeting.