What Russia's Moves on Georgia Could Mean for Iran

Remember Iran, the greatest threat to Western civilization since, well, Iraq? The posturing conservatives who dominated America's foreign policy for most of the last seven years pretended the only approach that ever could or should be pursued toward the mullahs would be isolation, confrontation and, what the hell, annihilation. Who can forget the oft-repeated campaign mantra of Sen. John McCain that the only thing worse than going to war with Iran would be a nuclear-armed Iran?

Well, it turns out that a lot of things are worse. It's funny how a reassertive Russia armed with some 10,000 all-too-real nuclear weapons puts the theoretical menace of Iran's as yet non- existent arsenal in perspective. But, looking ahead, what's more curious still is that a new administration--maybe even McCain's--may start looking for ways to work with Iran to help balance Russian power.

For centuries, whenever Russia has thrashed around in the Caucasus or in Central Asia, the Persians have been among the first to feel the bear's hot breath. The kingdoms of Georgia, one may recall, were vassals of the shahs before they were taken by the tsars in the early 19th century. Imperial Russia kept pushing decade after decade until its troops occupied even the Iranian city of Tabriz. In the 20th century, the Soviets repeatedly tried to establish variations on the theme of a Persian Socialist Republic. That's the kind of history the millennially minded Iranians keep in mind.

It's true that over the last 20 years, Tehran's relations with Moscow have been much more cooperative. The Persian pariahs would take any friends they could get. But those were the decades when Russia's sphere of influence was shrinking--and the Russian move into Georgia is a clear signal those days of timidity are over.

History, especially Caucasian, Caspian and Central Asian history has restarted with a vengeance. The dynamics of confrontation and conciliation in Iran's neighborhood are now every bit as complicated as they were in the 19th century, when an expanding Russian empire came up against the intrigues, alliances and sometimes overt military actions of imperial Britain in the rivalry that became known as "The Great Game." What's needed as we start reshaping American policy to fit the new circumstances is a reality check or, perhaps better said, a realpolitik check.

Over the short run, the mullahs will reap several benefits from Russia's play in Georgia and Western reaction to it. "If you are no longer the greatest threat du jour then you are off the hook," says Vali Nasr, an Iran scholar affiliated with the Council on Foreign Relations. Given the diplomatic standoff between Moscow and Washington, it will be much harder to enforce U.N. Security Council sanctions leveled against Iran for pursuing its nuclear-enrichment program. Further tightening the screws will be all but impossible. At the same time, the likelihood of American-led or supported military action against Iran is also diminished. It was never a good idea, and now it would be a very dangerous distraction for the already depleted U.S. military. Israel, however worried it may be, will have to understand that.

If Iran is not already working at full speed to develop nuclear weapons (it insists its intentions are entirely peaceful), it could be expected to pick up the pace now, and not least as a deterrent to Russian expansion in its direction. On the other hand, if it pushes too hard and too fast, Moscow may start to see nuclear-armed mullahs as a dangerous distraction, and Tehran would have to take into account the possibility that Russia, in its new and aggressive posture, would act directly and ruthlessly to eliminate the threat. Under current circumstances, who would come to Iran's defense? Even if the Iranians decide to slow down their nuclear program, or stop it, they will have to worry about Moscow's long-term designs on oil and natural-gas deposits around the Caspian Sea, where Russia already has a fleet and already disputes Iran's claims to a large portion of the resources beneath the water.

The incoming American administration could "play on those kinds of fears and take advantage of the opportunities," says Nasr. "But to play that kind of game you need a lot of clarity of vision." That hasn't really been the hallmark of the Bush administration, nor of McCain's rhetoric, nor of Barack Obama's talk about talking. Indeed, the basic policy framework of the United States is built on fundamental contradictions. "We talk as if Iran is the biggest threat, but we act as if Russia is," says Nasr.

Thus Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a deal with Warsaw on Tuesday to put part of the American ballistic-missile shield in Poland, having long asserted that the purpose was to thwart Iran. But, um, Iran has no intercontinental ballistic missiles. Its attempt to launch a rocket into space over the weekend appears to have quite literally fizzled. Moscow, meanwhile, has hundreds of perfectly serviceable ICBMs. (We sometimes send our own American astronauts to the International Space Station on Russia's reliable rockets.) It's hardly surprising the Russians think the purpose of the American missile shield is to eliminate what's left of the old strategic balance and give Washington a potential first-strike capability against Moscow. That sort of confrontation, if overplayed, could slip toward the Strangelovian standoffs of the cold war or, conceivably, something worse.

In fact, the new Great Game, like the old one, will be a long narrative of intrigue and confrontation in which there is no sudden or decisive resolution. Realism will dictate efforts to improve relations with states on Russia's periphery whether or not their ideologies are compatible with American democratic ideals. Another Iran scholar, Gary Sick at Columbia University, believes the policymakers remaining in the Bush administration have actually come to understand this, albeit very late. "After 9/11 their world view was that the United States had limitless power," says Sick. "I don't think they believe that anymore. And if you really believe you have to husband your power in ways that are more cost effective, you have to change our approach to Iran." It won't be easy. The Iranians are hard bargainers with regional ambitions of their own, but they are not irrational, and their primary interest is security. Oddly enough, Washington may find that the U.S. benefits by helping them feel safer, not more threatened.