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How the Obama team convinced Russia not to sell arms to Iran

How the Obama team convinced Russia not to sell arms to Iran

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev‘s decision not to sell advanced weaponry to Iran is being hailed as a dividend of the Obama administration’s "reset" policy with Russia. And although the administration didn’t expressly offer the Kremlin a quid pro quo for the reversal, Moscow will expect moves by Washington in return as it cautiously moves to grasp Obama’s outstretched hand.

Both the Obama and Bush administrations implored the Kremlin not to follow through with their 2006 signed agreement to sell almost $1 billion worth of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, and on Wednesday, Medvedev formally announced the sale will not go through.

Russia’s decision, which is seen by Kremlinologists as being driven by Medvedev himself, is being touted by the White House as a new dawn in the U.S.-Russia relationship and a significant move in further isolating the embattled regime in Tehran. A senior administration official, speaking to The Cable on background basis, said Moscow’s refusal to sell the S-300 air defense system and various other advanced weaponries was a significant decision, because imposing sanctions on Iran is more costly for Russia than for the United States.

"They’ve made that very clear to us for the last two years that this is not a symmetrical transaction for them and they don’t share the same threat assessment as us vis-a-vis Iran," the official said. "The decision was a bold one that acknowledges how important it is to us and how important Medvedev takes this reset with President Obama."

The officials explained that the Obama administration made clear to Medvedev and other Russian officials that the sale of the S-300 to Iran was a red line that couldn’t be crossed, and one that was raised in every high-level meeting between the two countries. Israeli officials did the same in meetings with their Russian counterparts.

The issue was raised during Medvedev’s visit to Washington in July. Two weeks ago, it was discussed again during a trip to Russia by NSC Senior Director for Russia Michael McFaul and Undersecretary of State Bill Burns. Defense Secretary Robert Gates pressed Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov on the issue during his visit to Washington last week (along with still lingering potential Russian missile sales to Syria). And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly on the day the announcement was made.

As for why the Russians finally decided to scuttle the arms deal after years of lobbying by Washington, the official speculated that Moscow now has something it needs — and that it finally has faith that the U.S. is willing to help. Russia is jockeying for as much U.S. support as possible for their upcoming bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), and Moscow is planning to finalize its bid this year.

"Momentum on WTO accession is what they see as they next big negotiations with us. We’re right in the middle of that. That’s asymmetric because that’s more in their interest than ours. I think we have to deliver on that," the official said.

But the Obama administration isn’t asking Russia for favors or giving them out in return, the official explained. The idea is to make the U.S.-Russia relationship more valuable to the Russians than their relationship with Iran, and both countries should act in their own interests.

"The objective is not actually to develop a good relationship with Russia. The goal here is to advance our national security and economic interests and to promote universal values," the official said.

Experts, however, are divided on exactly what the Russian announcement means about the success of the reset policy, considering that Russia continues to aid Iran in other ways and remains at odds with the West about their occupation of Georgia.

What’s clear is that the U.S. and Russia are now cooperating on key issues such as Iran more than before and that Obama team made the Iran weapons sales a priority in its dealings with Russia. What pushed Russia over the edge in this case was a mix of their desire for further concessions from the United States and a deteriorating relationship with Iran. Tehran protested the Russian announcement; their top military commander called the decision "illogical" because he said it was not required under U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929.

But some Russia skeptics aren’t so sure that Moscow has yet made the strategic decision to turn away from Iran and towards the United States.

"Let’s wait a bit before we pop open the champagne," said David Kramer, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights during the Bush administration. He gave credit to the Obama administration for getting the Russians to renege on the S-300 sale, but pointed out that Moscow still cooperates with Iran on the Bushehr nuclear reactor, may allow Russian company Lukoil to undermine U.S. energy sanctions, and may even sign on to a multilateral criticism of U.S. and EU sanctions on Iran being discussed by Brazil, India, and China.

Kramer also wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post heavily criticizing McFaul and Burns for not coming out more strongly in public on behalf of Russian activist Lev Ponomaryov, who was arrested just before they were due to meet with him and other human rights activists in Russia earlier this month.

"Alas, speaking the truth about Russia isn’t likely to happen as long as the Obama administration spins its ‘reset’ policy with Russia as one of its major foreign policy successes. Worse, administration officials have on numerous occasions rejected the notion of ‘linkage’ between human rights problems and the U.S.-Russia relationship. Such attitudes signal to Russian officials that there are no consequences for behavior," Kramer wrote.

The senior administration official responded to Kramer’s article directly and told The Cable that he disputed the contention that the Obama administration is silent on human rights violations in Russia.

"We are not doing that game. We are not being silent on issues of democracy and human rights in order to get their agreement on the S-300. The evidence for that is apparent. We do not mince our words. We put out dozens of statements on Russian human rights practices," the official said. "It’s what we call dual-track engagement."

The administration has rejected the idea of "linkage," the diplomatic practice of tying U.S. gestures to corresponding gestures from Russia. They are convinced rather that deepening engagement with Russia will have spillover benefits in various areas and progress will be gradual.

"You shouldn’t expect enlightened constructive behavior overnight on every issue just because the United States says reset," said Samuel Charap, fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Russia is still Russia."

Russia’s rejection of international appeals during the Georgia war in 2008 showed how little Moscow felt they had to lose by crossing the West. "They didn’t care what Washington thought because they had nothing at stake," said Charap. "Engaging with a country in our political discussion is sometimes seen as an endorsement of it, and that is a legacy of the Bush administration."

Other Russia experts saw the move as a
sign of Medvedev’s success in steering foreign policy away from the control of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former president who originally signed the S-300 deal in 2006.

"This announcement seemed to be very much owned by Medvedev. On the face of it, the U.S. policy of engaging Medvedev and ignoring Putin seems to have strengthened his hand in this case," said Alexandros Petersen, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

But although there is not direct linkage in the Obama administration’s eyes, the Russians will definitely want to get something for their efforts. A clause in the S-300 announcement specifies that Russia could rescind its ban at any time. This means that if the White House wants to keep the reset progressing, they are going to have to keep giving Moscow concessions, such as a civilian nuclear deal the Russians want but that faces opposition in Congress.

"I think this is something they are going to try, and if they don’t see something significant in return, you’ll start to see a roll back of this promise," Petersen said.