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US & Russia: Rethinking the Unthinkable About Iran

Russia and America: Rethinking the Unthinkable About Iran

by Reuben Steff

In recent years speculation has mounted that Israel and the United States stand upon the cusp of attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. The potential repercussions of such an attack would be dramatic. It is likely that the wider Middle East would be set ablaze, terrorist cells could initiate attacks against western targets worldwide and the global economy dealt a massive blow as oil prices skyrocket.

This has led to a number of views in the west on the plausibility of such an attack. One, which became dogma for some a few years back, was that the Bush administration was hell-bent on attacking Iran irrespective of the repercussions. Another contended that Israel and the United States would never dare to actually carry out an attack in light of the potential consequences.

As such, statements to this affect, accompanied by overt military threats, are just a form of psychological warfare aimed at bringing the Iranians to heel.

Now there is another view, another dogma, that argues that with Barack Hussein Obama in the White House reason, not ideology, will prevail as both sides eventually end up at the negotiating table.

The stakes in this game are high but our assessment of the situation must change as the circumstances change. Contending that America will never attack Iran should not become dogma, no matter who is president. Obama’s decision will be affected by how other geopolitical challenges intersect with the problem of Iran.

On a regional level there are two primary actors in this game: Israel and Iran. It is easy to get caught up in the rhetorical tit-for-tat between them but there are two external actors whose hostile relationship could define the future of the region: America and Russia.

America’s Priorities and the ‘Second Nuclear Age’

America currently faces two primary geopolitical challenges: One is Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program; the other is how to address a resurgent Russia.

America fears that a nuclear-capable Iran could result in a cascade of nuclear proliferation across the Middle East. In this situation not only would Iran attain a deterrent against an Israeli and/or American military strike but the entire balance of the region would be altered as a number of new nuclear deterrent relationships formed that could usher in an era of unprecedented danger.

This fear flows from the belief that we are witnessing the birth of a ‘second nuclear age’ that will be characterised by the spread of nuclear weapons to an increasing number of states. As each new state goes nuclear it could force other states within their region to go nuclear in kind.

From America’s point of view the Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the most worrying states that could be seeking to attain a nuclear weapon. For political effect America has declared Iran to be a ‘Rogue State’ and by definition cannot be allowed to attain nuclear weapons.

The second nuclear age may very well have been what President Bush envisioned when he stated that if the world is interested in avoiding World War III it must stop Iran from attaining a nuclear weapon.

This problem feeds into, and intersects, with America’s broader geopolitical priorities.

For over 100 years now America’s central strategic preoccupation has been to ensure that no single power, or alliance of powers, can dominate the Eurasian landmass, as the industrial and economic resources it would have on hand would allow it to challenge America’s global dominance. America’s approach to the Eurasian continent must be understood in this manner – America must divide and rule; co-opt or conquer.

Zbigniew Brezinski, former US National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter and now foreign policy advisor to Obama, is a proponent of this view.

The Russian Resurgence

Russia is the pivot of Eurasia: when it is weak and fragmented it is easy to ignore; when it is united and strong, as now, it usurps the global stage.

For Russia security is always tenuous: it’s absolutely massive size and almost indefensible perimeter has meant that its history is scarred by invasion after invasion. This came first from the Mongol hordes in the East then from the West in the form of Napoleonic France and then again only 78 years ago when Nazi Germany sought to conquer Eurasia.

As a consequence it is hardwired into the Russian psyche that ‘security’ requires territorial expansion in order to create ‘buffer states’ to outside forces. It can do this either through the expansion of the Russian state itself or by creating politically compliant states around its periphery.

Consequently, Russian history has a pattern: It experiences cycles of expansion leading to empire, resulting in overextension before collapse and retraction.

In essence, achieving security for Russia is an eternal struggle and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 represented a massive set back, one Vladimir Putin has called “The greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 21st century.

Its collapse in-augured a distinctly unique historical era: A ‘unipolar’ world with the United States at its apex. This was said to have created a ‘unipolar moment’ from which the US could seek to refashion the global order in its own image. Dome would even state that mankind had reached the ‘end of history’, as the political economic and social system of the United States had emerged triumphant over all others and was a universal system that could spread across the globe.

Even some old adversaries, like the Russians, appeared to be embracing democracy. Yet it came with a massive price: internal anarchy. This chaos lasted until Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000 and began consolidating control over the state. Buoyed by high oil prices, he has helped re-create an authoritarian Russia that has set out to push back against the ‘tide’ of history.

During a conference in Munich in 2007 Putin chose his moment to denounce American unipolarity and begin the geopolitical resurgence of Russia.

A number of factors led to his decision to confront America: the invasion of Iraq; the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders; the ‘colour’ revolutions in the former Soviet Union; Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence; the American abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the subsequent decision to deploy missile defence installations in Poland and the Czech Republic which will have a ‘kinematic’ capability to intercept Russian missiles.

Russia’s believes these actions to be part of a coherent and aggressive campaign by the United States to encircle and strategically cripple it. After all, if Russia has learnt anything from American history it is that America either co-opts its enemies or grinds them down.

Putin’s ability to reassert Russia has been made possible by the American failure in install a pro-American regime in Iraq. If Iraq had gone according to plan American power would have surged across the global stage with Iraq acting as a launching-pad for further campaigns. Instead, the invasion turned into a quagmire, one that has tied down American military power for 6 years.

This opened a ‘window of opportunity’ for Russia. Its resurgence has been designed to show the states of the former Soviet Union, and parts of Europe, that the balance of power has changed in the region and that Russia cannot be ignored on security matters.

They have done this by using Russia’s massive energy resources and through the use of military power, most notably during its 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Ultimately, these efforts have been designed to force America to agree to a ‘Grand Bargain’ where Russia would be recognised as a ‘Great Power’ with an attendant ‘sphere of influence’ stretching across the former Soviet Union. In this bargain Georgia and Ukraine’s bids for NATO membership would be thrown out and missile defence installations not deployed in Poland, in exchange for Russian help in forcing Iran to come to the negotiating table.

Throughout this year there have been two notable occasions when America has rejected this. First came on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, the second more recently when Obama travelled to Moscow to attend a Russian-American summit.

Vice-President Biden recently outlined one of the key underlying rationales for this: Russia is doomed in the long-term as a result of economic problems and a mounting demographic decline.

This assumption is accompanied by the fear that any concessions granted could undermine America’s global alliance system, as state after state begins to question America’s security commitments.

Furthermore, a deal that helps America in the short term could result in America confronting a far more dangerous, assertive and powerful Russia in the long-run.

As a result of this rejection Russia will have gone back to the drawing board in order to plan its next move. If America will not recognise Russia’s interests then it will raise the stakes. This brings us to Iran.

Iran’s Internal Situation

The continued protests in Iran suggest that many Iranians continue to doubt the legitimacy of the election. For the most part these protests reflect a rift within the clerical establishment and have nothing to do with the prospects of liberal democracy.

The dispute in Iran is ideological and generational and is being fought out between two factions. One side represents the ‘old class’ associated with the founding of the Islamic Republic and has Hamid Rafsanjani as its leader (although its political ‘face’ is Hossein Mousavi). A second is the faction that surrounds current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They believe that the old guard has become corrupt and is undermining the purity of the Islamic Revolution.

Prior to the recent Iranian election Ahmadinejad carefully positioned himself by declaring that the west was planning to initiate a ‘colour’ revolution against him. The mention of a colour revolution drew parallels with Russia’s recent experience, as many former Soviet states experienced a pattern of contested elections that culminated in a number of pro-western governments coming to power at the expense of pro-Russian ones.

By declaring that a colour revolution was imminent, Ahmadinejad was stating that the emergence of any post-election chaos could be the result of western designs to oust him.

Now we all know what happened: a contested election; calls of a ‘Green Revolution’; both sides claiming victory; massive protests; a brutal crackdown.

Now this is where it gets really interesting.

On July 17th at Tehran University former Iranian President Rafsanjani (the leader of the old guard) gave his first sermon since the election. Inside the mosque, supporters of Ahmadinejad chanted ‘death to America’. Outside, however, for the first time Rafsanjani supporters’ chanted ‘death to Russia’. This was an accusation by Rafsanjani that Russia had a hand in ensuring Ahmadinejad’s victory.

There is evidence to support this: Firstly, Ahmadinejad’s response was quick and efficient (with internet and phone lines being cut), suggesting he was provided with intelligence and advice from Russia on how to handle the post-election unrest. Secondly, Ahmadinejad flew to Russia just four days after the protests to attend a conference.

With his country in chaos most were willing to write this off, suggesting that he was unconcerned with the protests and did not want to bestow any political legitimacy upon them. But there’s another theory: he was flying to Russia in order to receive further instruction.

Real or not, the accusation by Rafsanjani’s group places additional importance upon what could have remained an internal schism within Iran. They suggest that Russia has made a calculated decision to intervene in Iranian’s internal situation in order to ensure Ahmadinejad’s survival. In essence, not only would Russia have proved its worth to Ahmadinejad but the prospect for further political-military co-operation between them could increase.

As such we could be witnessing the first stirrings of a nascent ‘entente’ – a strategic alliance –between Iran and Russia. The geopolitical implications of this would be huge. When isolated the problems of Iran and Russia are difficult to deal with but together they could become truly daunting, especially if Russia sells Iran strategic weaponry.

It would become imperative for Israel and America to prevent this from happening, opening up the possibility that the military option would be reconsidered.

The Obama Factor

Some seem to think that no matter what Obama is less likely than Bush to initiate a military strike against Iran. This notion is based upon his initial anti-war stance towards the invasion of Iraq and a belief that he will be more sensitive to the potential consequences of conflict with Iran. These are questionable conclusions.

Obama’s initial rejection of the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the rejection of war itself as a political tool. Anyone who thinks he is a peacenik needs only look at the surge in the number of American troops being deployed into Afghanistan and the increasing intensity of fighting that has accompanied them. This is coupled to Obama’s commitment to the doctrine of ‘Full Spectrum Dominance’ – the continued domination by American military forces over all domains of the earth – its oceans, land areas, airspace, cyberspace and outer space.

Oh, and let’s not forget that the Pentagon’s 2010 budget will be the biggest in history.

Moreover, Obama may actually be better positioned to carry out a strike against Iran than Bush ever was. For most of Bush’s second term he was described as a ‘lame duck president’ - he simply had little political credibility left in the eyes of the world. As such he would have found it extremely difficult to justify to his western allies an attack upon Iran.

This has led Obama to go to great pains in order to change the ‘tone’ of American foreign policy in an attempt to differentiate himself from Bush. Notably, this has included an outreach to America’s enemies, with Obama suggesting that he is willing to ‘talk’ to them if only they would ‘unclench their fist’.

Even if this achieves little the perception that he has changed America’s willingness to engage with America’s enemies is significant. Their unwillingness to take up his offer could allow Obama to argue that he has exhausted all non-military options.

Obama also faces significant political problems in coming to an agreement with Russia or Iran. It is easy to accuse Iran’s leaders of being overly stubborn by rejecting American overtures but the aftermath of the Iranian elections has not only made it harder for Ahmadinejad to create a political consensus on foreign policy, should he wish to engage Obama, but given conservative Democrats and Republicans in the American political system ammunition to attack Obama if he endeavours to engage with an ‘illegitimate’ regime in Iran.

As to engaging Russia Obama’s problem is partly a consequence of history and the lessons America learnt from Chamberlain’s ill-fated attempt to appease Hitler prior to World War II. It was hoped that giving Hitler concessions would satiate his territorial desires.

It did not and shortly after most of Europe fell under the boots of the Third Reich as the world was plunged into total war.

This has influenced the actions of US Presidents ever since, especially new ones concerned with appearing ‘weak’ in front of their enemies. President John F. Kennedy, often likened to Obama, had this exact fear when he confronted Nikita Khruschev during the Cold War. Obama’s fear will be no different when confronting Putin.

A Coming Collision?

There are a number of indications that suggest a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis is receding. This is occurring at the same time Russia and America are becoming locked into a new geopolitical confrontation over Eurasia that threatens to draw the Iranian crisis into its embrace.

Currently the two problems of Iran and Russia are separate. However, if they begin to merge in the American mind into a single problem, so that one cannot be solved exclusive to the other, the chances of an Israeli-American attack rise dramatically as the costs of inaction rise. For America, a resurgent Russia stretching across the former Soviet Union in alliance with Iran would be a worst-case scenario.

War is by no means inevitable but a dangerous game of ‘brinkmanship’ is unfolding. It is a tragic fact that these states’ continue to perceive military power to be the ‘ultimate arbiter’ and that their strategic relations exist within a ‘zero-sum’ game - so that a gain by one is a loss to another.

In many ways by subscribing to these ideas’ they create a self-fulfilling prophecy: They see signs of military movements and increased defence budgets as signs of aggressive intent when they may actually be defensive in nature.

These states are captive to history and act as though they are ‘locked’ into a Cold War mindset. Crucially, they must stop thinking of the world of nation-states as a grand chessboard and divorce themselves from the notion that to be great is dependent upon crude calculations of military strength and the force of arms one can bring to bear.

In an increasingly globalised world, one that is destined to be subject to an increasing number of threats that affect all states, it simply does not make sense to think in these terms any longer.


Reuben Steff is currently writing his PhD thesis on 'Deterrence Theory and Ballistic Missile Defence' at Otago University. He encourages comments, criticisms or thoughts. You can e-mail him at stere538[at] His blog is

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