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Engagement With Iran? Here Are Some Likely Scenarios

Schoolgirls wave national flags at a rally to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.
Schoolgirls wave national flags at a rally to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran.
Tehran marked the 30th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution by launching its first satellite into orbit, a gesture intended to symbolize the scope of the country's progress since shaking off the yoke of the shah.

At the same time, the new U.S. administration of President Barack Obama is so far sticking to its intention of changing Washington's approach to Iran, as outlined by Obama during the election campaign last year. True, the signals out of Washington so far are vague, but they definitely differ from those that were sent by the previous White House.

Objectively speaking, Washington is interested in normalizing relations with Tehran for several reasons.

First, stabilization in Iraq and the gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country will be impossible without Iran's cooperation. Tehran is, after all, the only country that has unambiguously benefited from the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of Saddam Hussein. Iran's long-time enemy was punished and Iranian influence spread across a large portion of Iraq.

Second, to the extent that Afghanistan has become the most potentially explosive region in the world, the potential role of neighboring countries -- especially Iran -- in stabilizing that situation has come to the fore. Tehran and Al-Qaeda are openly in conflict, while the Iranians view Pakistan -- a key player in this conflict -- with both envy (as a nuclear-armed power) and suspicion. Tehran has no need for a return of the Taliban, who are Sunni radicals with connections to Saudi Arabia, which Iran views as its main competitor within the Islamic world.

Iran has the potential to become an influential regional power that could maintain the balance of forces and interests across the Middle East.

Third, the prospects for diversifying Europe's energy supply and reducing the continent's dependence on Russia -- which the United States is insisting upon -- are realistic only if cooperation with Iran is unfrozen. For one thing, only Iranian natural gas can help the much-discussed Nabucco pipeline project feasible.

Room For Pluralism

Of course, there is no reason to expect quick success from any possible dialogue between Washington and Tehran. Even if such a dialogue gets started, within half an hour it will be clear that Iran has no intention of discussing its right to conduct nuclear enrichment, something to which Washington will never agree. And then there is the matter of Israel's security, which has the potential to thwart any contacts because Tehran is not likely to back away from its radically anti-Israel position.

At the same time, Iran will hold a presidential election this year. Unlike Arab countries, where the results of such voting as a rule is predetermined, Iranian politics has significant room for pluralism and variety.

It is possible to speculate about what Moscow will start thinking if Washington and Tehran actually do begin moving toward one another. Such a rapprochement would mean several things.
For instance, the victory of Mohammad Khatami in 1997 came as a surprise, as did that of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005. The economic situation in Iran is far from ideal, so it cannot be excluded that we will see a shift of power. And the arrival of any other interlocutor could produce some reduction of tensions, although it will not change things in any essential way. But the removal of Ahmadinejad, who had become a symbol of anti-Semitism and aggressive policies, would improve the atmosphere.

Since Khatami announced that he will run in the election, many commentators have begun speaking about seizing opportunities for reconciliation that were missed during his presidency.

Yet one other sharp conflict is connected -- at least formally -- with Iran: the fate of the proposed antimissile system for Central and Eastern Europe, a project that Russia strongly opposes.

The Americans have always officially declared that the proposed radar complex in the Czech Republic and missile interceptors in Poland are intended to defend Europe from a potential ballistic-missile strike from Iran. Moscow, however, never believed this. Moreover, in 2007 Vladimir Putin's 2007 proposal that Russia work together with Washington on missile defense using Russia's existing infrastructure was rejected.

Iran's satellite launch came as bad news for Moscow, demonstrating that Iran is moving aggressively to increase its military potential and playing into the hands of those who support the missile-defense plan.

One Clear Prerequisite

A complex approach to solving the problem of Iran's nuclear and missile programs and the proposed U.S. missile-defense system is theoretically possible. But it would demand serious work on the part of Russia, the United States, and Europe, and it would require one clear prerequisite: that the U.S. system is really aimed against Iran and is not intended for some other purposes. This is still not clear. Considering the overall climate of international relations now, it is even hard to suppose that the U.S. statements are true, although the latest signals give reason for cautious optimism.

If Obama really does intend to try a new approach, then the most interesting thing will not be the pompous beginning, but the second stage.

After the initial talks and the initial disappointments, the White House might lose patience and lurch back in the direction of a hard line. Obama has already been accused of not being prepared to staunchly defend U.S. interests, and he will need to demonstrate decisively that this is not the case. At the same time, it is obviously going to be easier for the Obama administration to find a common language with Europe, which is well-disposed toward George W. Bush's successor. As a result, Russia could find itself isolated within the group of five powers that is charged with resolving the problem of Iran's nuclear program.

Imagine for a moment the rather unlikely scenario that Moscow -- which in principle has no desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran -- agrees to conditions under which it would support Washington's calls for harsh sanctions against Iran. Very quickly a new dilemma would arise. No one actually seriously believes that international sanctions will restrain Iran's nuclear program. There is simply too much experience that shows that sanctions do not work in such circumstances.

So the question quickly arises -- what next? Either the world would have to accept a nuclear-armed Iran and figure out a way to coexist or it would once again have to begin considering the use of military force, with all its unpredictable consequences.

It is also interesting to consider whether Russia really has any levers of influence regarding Iran. Experience shows that Iran is more likely to manipulate its foreign partners than to be manipulated by them. The situation is similar to Washington's supposed influence over Islamabad, which has been called the United States's closest ally outside of NATO.

Ramifications Of Rapprochement

Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate about what Moscow will start thinking if Washington and Tehran actually do begin moving toward one another. Such a rapprochement would mean several things.

First, it would bring Iran into the European energy market as Russia's most dangerous competitor.

Second, it would mean the opening of the Iranian market to Western technologies, placing Russia -- which has been working hard to secure this market, including in the sphere of nuclear power -- at a considerable disadvantage.

Third, it might lead to greater activity by Tehran (with Washington's silent support) in the Caspian region where there are still many unresolved problems, including working out a legal framework for exploiting the region's energy resources.

The experience of India and Pakistan shows that it is not possible to exclude that Washington might adopt a more tolerant attitude toward Iran's possible "illegal" nuclear status. However, there is a world of difference between New Dehli and Islamabad, on one hand, and Iran, with its militarism and strident anti-Americanism, on the other.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of "Russia in Global Affairs." This commentary originally appeared on "Yezhednevny zhurnal." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.