Today, President Bush met Dmitry Medvedev for the first time since the latter became the nominal leader of Russia in May. Both men are attending the Group of Eight summit in northern Japan. It is the American’s eighth and last such meeting and the Russian’s first. “I reminded him that yes I’m leaving, but not until six months, and I’m sprinting to the finish,” Bush said, as he struggled to keep himself relevant. “So we can get a lot done together, and you know there are a lot of important issues like Iran.”
Funny he should mention that particular one. Medvedev, who publicly referred to Bush as “George,” said he stood on the same page as his new American friend when it came to the Islamic Republic. “There are certain questions on our agenda where we agree, and these are the matters pertaining to Iran and North Korea,” the Russian said. “We had a good discussion about Iran,” Bush said, for his part.
Is that so? If there were a good discussion leading to agreement between Moscow and Washington, the mullahs would eventually end up friendless: China and others would have no choice but to fall in line. Yet Russia and the United States are not so united, and the Iranians know it because they are defiant as ever. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is attending a meeting of eight developing nations in Malaysia, today rejected the latest nuclear offer from the world’s major powers as “illegitimate.”
When it comes to Iran, the common ground between the United States and Russia appears to be shrinking, in part because of Moscow’s anger over the basing of missile defense sites in former Soviet client states in Eastern Europe. Instead of trading pleasantries with his Russian counterpart, it’s time for Bush to propose a trade: we abandon missile defense in Europe and Russia abandons Iran. This is something we can afford to do. Missile defense is necessary for states that cannot—or might not–be deterred by nuclear retaliation. In the Middle East, the one state that meets this definition is Iran. If Iran can be defanged, however, there’s little point in basing interceptors and radar to protect Europe.
President Bush, as he acknowledged today, does not have much time left in office. As a practical matter, the only way he can end the Iranian nuclear threat without the use of force is to obtain Russia’s cooperation. Perhaps the Russians are just using missile defense as an excuse, but at this moment Mr. Bush has the opportunity to put them to the test.