Russia: New sanctions on Iran "counterproductive"

Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in part for his willingness to knuckle under to Russian demands to stop the land-based missile-defense system in eastern Europe.  Thorbjoern Jagland cited that explicitly as an accomplishment worthy of the NPP, much as the White House itself had hailed it three weeks earlier as a major step forward towards containment of Iran and cooperation on sanctions:

The White House claimed a key victory Wednesday in its effort to create momentum toward sanctions against Iran for its pursuit of nuclear weapons, saying that comments by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev after a meeting with President Obama represented a shift toward favoring punitive action…

Michael McFaul, the president’s top Russia adviser, called Mr. Medvedev’s statement on Iran “a very big change in [Russia’s] position.” He said that the administration’s decision last week to drop a missile-defense plan that had angered the Kremlin had increased the odds of a change.

Today, though, the White House has plenty of egg on its Nobel-winning face, as Russia has reversed themselves and declared that they will not approve further sanctions on Iran:

Denting President Obama’s hopes for a powerful ally in his campaign to press Iran on its nuclear program, Russia’s foreign minister said Tuesday that threatening Tehran now with harsh new sanctions would be “counterproductive.”

The minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said after meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton here that diplomacy should be given a chance to work, particularly after a meeting in Geneva this month in which the Iranian government said it would allow United Nations inspectors to visit its clandestine nuclear enrichment site near the holy city of Qum.

“At the current stage, all forces should be thrown at supporting the negotiating process,” he said. “Threats, sanctions and threats of pressure in the current situation, we are convinced, would be counterproductive.”

Mr. Lavrov’s resistance was striking given that, just three weeks before, President Dmitri A. Medvedev said that “in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” American officials had hailed that statement as a sign that Russia was finally coming around to the Obama administration’s view that Iran is best handled with diplomacy backed by a credible threat of sanctions.

It also came after the Obama administration announced that it would retool a European missile defense system fiercely opposed by Russia. That move was thought to have paid dividends for the White House when Mr. Medvedev appeared to throw his support behind Mr. Obama on Iran, though American officials say the Russian president was also likely to have been reacting to the disclosure of the secret nuclear site near Qum.

Russia acts in Russia’s interests.  It has a big commercial interest in Iran, and especially in the Iranian nuclear program.  Anyone who didn’t see this as a big impediment for Russian action against Iran probably drank a little too much of the Hopeandchange Kool-aid, or maybe spent too much time fashioning and mislabeling “reset” buttons rather than learning geopolitics.

The missile-defense shield gambit may have made sense as a bargaining chip to force Russia into conceding on sanctions.  However, like any other amateur negotiator, Obama led off with his biggest concession and expected international  goodwill to trump Russia’s national interest.  Apparently, Obama didn’t bother to reckon with a Russian economy expected to contract 7.6% this year and Moscow’s need to maintain any economic links it has open at the moment.

The New York Times points out that this diplomatic pratfall will not impress the Chinese any more than the Russians:

Enlisting Russia is critical for any sanctions campaign because of its geopolitical links to Iran. Russia’s refusal to act now may influence China, which has invested heavily in Iranian oil and gas reserves and has also been wary of sanctions. That Mr. Putin was in Beijing cutting deals while Mrs. Clinton was in Moscow warning about Iran was not lost on analysts here.

It should not be lost on the American public, either.  Obama just got outboxed by Russia, and the world will notice it.  The Nobel committee may shower him with accolades, but American security depends on more than a medal from Oslo.  So far, that appears to be the booby prize for the US for its retreat on missile defense.

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