With the survival of his Syrian client looking more assured these days, Russian President Vladimir Putin turned his gaze to Iran. In a televised session with his state-run media, Putin proclaimed that Tehran was “adhering to the rules” in its nuclear program and said the United States was wrong for the way it “uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or nonexistent threat.” Though Putin thought Iran’s threats against Israel are “unacceptable,” he made it clear that he would not support further pressure against the Islamist regime on the nuclear question.
Washington is distracted right now with scandals and events in Syria and Turkey but President Obama should have been paying very close attention to Putin’s statements. So much of the administration’s foreign policy strategy has hinged on his plan for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question that will allow Obama to avoid ever having to choose between the dangers of containment and the use of military force. But with Putin laying down a marker that makes it clear Russia will never go along with an international consensus seeking to stop Iran’s nuclear quest, the ultimate failure of a U.S. strategy that relies solely on sanctions and diplomacy is assured. As much as Obama may wish to avoid facing the truth, Putin’s talk was a reminder not only of the danger looming ahead in the remaining years of his presidency, but of the consequences of his feckless policy of delay and indecision on Syria.
For much of his first four and a half years in office, Obama’s foreign policy has been focused on trying to build an international coalition that would act to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear ambitions. Adding Russia to that group was essential to the plan’s success. But though the Russians have joined the P5+1 group that has been trying—and failing miserably—to negotiate with Iran, their presence in the room has been more of an obstacle than a help. Russia not only continues to help Tehran evade sanctions, but it acts as a brake on the efforts of the European Union and the United States to credibly threaten Iran with consequences if it continues to prevaricate on the nuclear question. Though first Secretary of State Clinton and now her successor John Kerry have tried to sweet talk Putin into the camp of those seeking to restrain Iran, he has laughed at their efforts and doubled down on his defiance.
Relying on Russia to make diplomacy work was never going to succeed because the keynote of Putin’s foreign policy will always center around his desire to frustrate the Americans whenever possible. Putin wishes to recreate the Soviet, if not the Tsarist, empire, and that means sticking a finger in the eye of the only real superpower in the world whenever possible.
Obama never had much chance of getting Russia to listen to reason on Iran, but his decision to punt on the question of acting to force Putin’s sole foreign client has significantly complicated things on Iran. Had the U.S. acted decisively during the early stages of the crisis in Syria, Russia might have been chastened and realized that it hadn’t the ability to pursue an independent course bent on obstructing U.S. aims in the Middle East. But instead Obama dithered, giving Russia and Iran the time to bolster the Assad regime with military aid and diplomatic support. While Obama foolishly kept predicting Assad’s inevitable fall, Putin and the ayatollahs worked to keep that from happening. With Assad now on the offensive and the American position on action in Syria having moved from worries about acting too early to an acknowledgement that it is now too late, Putin is justified in crowing about his triumph. The announcement that Russia would deliver missiles to Damascus–which would be aimed at Western forces seeking to enforce a potential no-fly zone in Syria–after Kerry journeyed to Moscow to beg that they forebear from such a provocative move crystallized the collapse of Obama’s Russian strategy.
Having won on Syria, there is now even less reason for Putin to cooperate on Iran. Though the Russian authoritarian wishes that Tehran would stop making statements about their intentions toward Israel that illustrate just how dangerous an Iranian nuke would be, Putin has backed Obama into a corner. For years, Obama has pretended that he could talk his way out of having to act on Iran, but the president must now understand that his choices are limited to force and containment. Both are problematic, but the latter means accepting a permanent strategic threat to U.S. allies that is a formula for future violence.