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Putin eyes Obama’s Iran file-M K Bhadrakumar

Posted by admin On September - 13 - 2013


When Kathleen Trola McFarland, the familiar Fox News national security analyst who served in national security posts in the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations and was an aide to Henry Kissinger at the White House, wrote that “Vladimir Putin is the one who really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize”, she obviously had the Syrian crisis in mind.

McFarland wrote on Tuesday, “In one of the most deft diplomatic maneuvers of all time, Russia’s President Putin has saved the world from near-certain disaster.”

She went on to narrate how Secretary of State John Kerry’s famous gaffe in London took wings and “the off-hand phrase was


picked up by Putin, became a Kerry Proposal and ultimately the Obama peace plan…”

Following up on her train of thought, it is easy to see how by the time this momentous week draws to a close Putin could doubly ensure his claim to a Nobel.

The point is that a major highlight of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s annual summit gathering in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, promises to be an event on Friday on its sidelines – the scheduled “bilateral” meeting between Putin and his Iranian counterpart, newly elected Hassan Rouhani. The Putin-Rouhani meeting in Bishkek is a scheduled one, planned well in advance. Both statesmen are vastly experienced in international diplomacy.

As he winds his way back to his work station in the wooded estate of Novo-Ogaryovo after picking Rouhani’s brains, Putin will begin choreographing in the privacy of his thoughts yet another peace plan – Iran.

This will be Putin’s first meeting with the newly elected Iranian president. The Rouhani presidency has aroused worldwide interest as presaging a meaningful US-Iran engagement, andRouhani has been signaling in many ways Tehran’s renewed interest in negotiating with the West – through policy pronouncements, cabinet appointments or sheer diplomatic “body language”. Rouhani has pledged that the revival of the Iranian economy is his priority for which he would seek a favorable external environment.

The good thing is that the Barack Obama administration realizes the limits of US military power to intimidate or vanquish Iran. Yet, like in the case with Syria, Obama is vacillating and is unable to take the leap of faith. It is a carbon copy of the dilemma he faced over Syria.

War weariness amongst the American public, pressure from the hawkish regional allies and their lobbies in the US, a dangerous regional milieu, an adversary’s proven grit to retaliate against aggression, overwhelming international opinion favoring dialogue – all the ingredients are there.

Putin could be sensing already that it is high time that someone helped Obama make up his mind – or rather, to pursue the natural inclinations of his mind.

As in the case of the Russian plan on Syria’s chemical weapons, there is a two- to three-year-old Russian blueprint already lying for a starter – an incremental approach of Iran responding to the international community’s concerns and the US step-by-step dismantling the sanctions regime and allowing Iran’s full integration as a regional power.

The US and Iran are warily probing each other’s intentions, and any keen observer of the three-decade old stand-off would sense that the diplomatic idiom is changing. The US no longer opposes Iran’s inclusion in any Geneva 2 talks on Syria.

Tehran too has taken a highly nuanced position on the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons. It has held a delicate line that, alas, the wily Gulf Arab sheikhs trapped Obama. In an extraordinary interview with Press TV on Wednesday, Iran’s savvy Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said,
I think that a number of groups, people inside the United States, and interests outside the United States, wanted to put the president of the US – whom I believe was reluctant to start the war – into a trap, a trap which he had unfortunately laid down for himself; and that was to get him involved in a war in order to address a hypothetical issue of the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria.
Iran has been quick to express solid support for the Russian plan on Syria’s chemical weapons.

Suffice to say, today’s meeting in Bishkek between the Russian and Iranian presidents has a regional backdrop. An engagement of the Syrian regime by the Obama administration becomes inevitable once the Russian plan is fleshed out and advances to the implementation stage.

For one thing, the Russian plan simply has to go hand in hand with a Geneva 2 process. Its implementation is going to be a long haul. It took four years for Washington to take out of Germany the US’ cold-war era stockpiles of 100,000 chemical weapons stockpile. When the operation began in 1986, a six-year timeline for implementation was envisaged.

That is to say, there is going to be a critical necessity for the established state structures in Syria to be around for a while if only for the implementation of the Russian plan. Put differently, the “regime change” agenda gets pushed to the backburner and whatever democratic transition is possible in the civil war conditions cannot but involve the Syrian regime.

Tehran, no doubt, is keenly watching. Russia’s firm stance on Syria during the crisis period since the US began assembling an armada in the Eastern Mediterranean cannot but impress Iran, for which regime change in Damascus also has existential overtones.

This is where it will see that a revival of the strategic partnership with Russia is an imperative. From Iran’s viewpoint, it is the Russian connection that would be a “force multiplier” when it begins to negotiate with the “P5+1” (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China plus Germany) format and with the US directly.

Rouhani would weigh in that even as his credibility as a negotiator is rising in Western eyes, his capacity to negotiate significantly gains out of a strengthening of the Iran-Russia relations at this juncture.

Here, it takes two to tango. Looking back, Putin’s visit to Iran in 2007, the first by a Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin’s in 1943, had raised high hopes of a historic turn in the bilateral relationship and of a new template in the geopolitics of the vast space the two countries overlap in and around the “Heartland” – Central Asia and the Caspian, Caucasus and the Middle East.

But in the event, these hopes remain unfulfilled. Putin left the Kremlin in 2008. During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency once the Russia-US “reset” appeared and the Iran question became a real-time talking point between the two powers, the calculus of Russian-Iranian ties changed.

Indeed, the pro-Western groups of the Russian elite gained ascendancy in the Kremlin. Soon, a transactional dispute arose over Russia’s non-fulfillment of the contract for supply of S-300 missiles to Iran. Russia insisted it acted under the UN sanctions, but Tehran saw the “hidden hand” of the US and Israel. Meanwhile, the steady worsening of the situation around the Iran nuclear issue introduced limits to engaging that country, given the international ramifications.

It stands to reason that unlike Medvedev, perhaps, Putin himself is acutely conscious that Iran is what American geo-strategists would call a “pivotal state”.

Interestingly, it didn’t cross Putin’s mind at all that the former president, Mahmud Ahmedinejad, was already a “lame duck” when they met in the Kremlin in July on the sidelines of the Caspian summit. Putin plunged with gusto into substantive discussions regarding ways to revive and strengthen a Russian-Iranian alliance, including a Russian-built second nuclear power plant in Iran.

Equally, Tehran would have noted the huge shift in the respective Russian approaches to the regime-change agenda in Libya (March 2011) and in Syria today.

Paradoxically, the Rouhani presidency brings Iran much closer to Russia in its “de-ideologized” foreign-policy outlook. Indeed, Russia doesn’t view the world through any ideological “East-West” prism. Nor is it enchanted by the ideas of “resistance” and “justice” that fired up Ahmedinejad, but which Rouhani is gradually relegating to the backburner.

It is inconceivable that, like Putin’s Russia, which scrupulously avoids the Soviet overreach, Rouhani’s Iran also will ever set aside national interests as the paramount consideration in foreign policy even while involved in regional security issues.

Rouhani is also wedded to globalization and neo-liberal policies as Russia is, and both see innovation of the economy as the core objective of national policies. Putin’s first priority has always been to work toward an equal partnership with the West, and he never tires of looking for windows of opportunity. The approach of Rouhani, who arrives on American soil in a few days to attend the UN General Assembly session in New York, is much the same.

In sum, both Iran and Russia are in a frame of mind that is conducive to reviving their strategic partnership. The only way Obama can stall a Nobel for Putin seems to be by pre-empting the Kremlin from launching yet another irresistible peace plan.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved

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