Vladimir Putin is on a roll.
And now, fresh from brokering an 11th-hour deal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons and taking a victory lap in The New York Times, Russia’s bare-chested strongman is looking for his next diplomatic triumph: Iran.
How did we get here? Out of a geostrategic nowhere, Russia has rocketed to the position of global powerbroker, capable of preventing a U.S. military action. It is now the dominant diplomatic power in the Middle East, akin to the Soviet Union before Egypt’s Anwar Sadat switched from Moscow to Washington in 1973. Along the way, Moscow has met an overarching goal of its foreign policy: preventing regime change in a friendly authoritarian state close to Russia’s borders.
The Syrian formula is simple but powerfully attractive to both sides of the conflict. The recipe relieves the West of the nerve-wracking burden of responsibility for a military action in a strategically vital and volatile region, and replaces it with a long, drawn-out U.N. “process.” To the blood-soaked Syrian regime, the blueprint not only implies staying in power but almost certainly precludes any outside military action against it. With the threats to the regime’s survival thus effectively removed, the United States has only the words of Putin and Syrian leader Bashar Assad to rely on.
Virtually all the key ingredients of the Syrian formula seem to be in place today with regard to a potentially even more impressive geostrategic gambit by Russia: inserting itself into the tense confrontation between the United States and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s alleged push for nuclear weapons.
Iran seems willing to play. Meeting with Putin on the margins of the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Kyrgyzstan on Sept. 13, just after the United States accepted the Russian lead on Syria, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani all but begged Russia to apply the Syrian formula once more. “Russia has taken important steps in this area in the past, and now there is an excellent opportunity for you to take new steps,” Rouhani reportedly said. Rouhani also extended an invitation, which Putin accepted, for the Russian president to visit Tehran.
As in the case of Syria, the downpayment for launching the “process” is taking military action off the table. “We believe military interference from outside in the country without a U.N. Security Council sanction is inadmissible,” Putin said in his speech at the summit. And in the case of Iran, sanctions may have to be at least significantly relaxed before the “process” commences: As stated in the summit’s concluding declaration, “the threat of military force and unilateral sanctions against the independent state of [Iran] are unacceptable.”
In the meantime, again as in Syria, no policy changes should be expected from Tehran. After praising Iran for the “willingness to give its nuclear program greater transparency,” Putin told Rouhani, “Iran, like any other country, has the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, including enrichment.” "Again as in Syria, no policy changes should be expected from Tehran."
The Kremlin has meanwhile ratcheted up the tension a notch or two by launching a couple of “or-else” trial balloons. According to Kommersant, the usually knowledgeable Russian daily, Putin “has given an order to start looking into meeting Iran’s key requests ”: the delivery of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile (the sale was cancelled by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in September 2010), and the construction of a second reactor for Iran’s Russia-built Bushehr nuclear power plant.
The White House seems receptive. “Diplomacy in Syria, backed up by military threat, is a potential model for negotiations on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions,” U.S. President Barack Obama said Sunday. My view,” he continued, “is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can strike a deal.” He added later that that he would be willing to “test” Rouhani’s overtures.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, too, has endorsed Rouhani’s efforts to “address diplomatic disputes with major world powers.” Obama and Rouhani have exchanged letters and both will speak at the U.N. General Assembly next week — and rumors are flying about a possible meeting between the two leaders.
This does not have to be a zero-sum game; Russia’s win does not have to be America’s loss. But playing for much higher stakes than in Syria, Obama ought to know what to expect from the “Syrian formula” that Putin is likely to reapply to Iran, lest he be blindsided.
Russians play chess. U.S. leaders play golf. Looking at the geostrategic chessboard as Obama and Kerry were toing and froing on Syria, Putin saw a strategic opening wide enough to drag three rooks through – and he acted quickly. If he sees a similar opportunity with respect to Iran, the United States should watch out: As with Syria, Putin will open the door to a winding and slippery tunnel with not much light at the end of it. Whether it backs away from the door or steps over the threshold, one hopes that this time, the White House will tread cautiously but confidently instead of being pushed into a fateful policy or stumbling into it.
Leon Aron is director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.