Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (center) with Russian Federation Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left) and the commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov (right). Through Russia’s participation in the Iran Talks, Putin learned much about decision making among the Western powers from the inside and likely feels better able to deal with them diplomatically and militarily.
According to an April 27, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than ever to Historic Nuclear Deal,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told the 191 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at conference at the UN that the P5+1 was very near to a deal with Iran that would end a 12-year-old stand-off. Kerry was quoted as saying on April 27th, “We are, in fact, closer than ever to the good, comprehensive deal that we have been seeking, and if we can get there, the entire world will be safer.” He stated further, “If finalized and implemented, [an agreement] will close off all of Iran’s possible pathways to the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon and give the international community the confidence that it needs to know that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed exclusively peaceful.” Yet, despite progress made, Kerry emphasized “the hard work is far from over and some key issues remain unresolved.”
Such sober comments underlining the considerable amount of negotiating still required to reach a final nuclear deal have come as a reality check for many following the April 2, 2015 announcements by parties to the talks, with flourish, that parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program were agreed upon. The appearance of reaching a nuclear deal was as potent as actually reaching a final concordance for some. This was particularly true in Iran where ordinary citizens celebrated in the streets after the framework nuclear deal was reached. Public reaction within P5+1 nations was imperceptible. However, there was a significant reaction among foreign and defense policy analysts and others interested in the talks. Their comments were kind of lush, a bit soupy. Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association declared, “The parameters agreed upon by the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany with the Islamic Republic of Iran promises to lead to one of the most consequential and far reaching nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades.” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies affirmed, “[T]he proposed parameters and framework in the Proposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the potential to meet every test in creating a valid agreement over time . . . It can block both an Iranian nuclear threat and a nuclear arms race in the region, and it is a powerful beginning to creating a full agreement, and creating the prospect for broader stability in other areas.” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund proclaimed, “The agreement does three things. It blocks all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. It imposes tough inspections to catch Iran should it try to break out, sneak out or creep out of the deal. And it keeps our coalition united to enforce the deal. Under this deal, Iran has agreed to rip out two-thirds of its centrifuges and cut its stockpile of uranium gas by 97 percent. It will not be able to make any uranium or plutonium for a bomb. Many of the restrictions in the agreement continue for 25 years and some . . . last forever.”
Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur. (The desire for glory is the last infirmity to be cast off even by the wise.) Every step toward a final deal has brought US President Barack Obama closer to the legacy-defining foreign policy achievement he has sought. Obama’s desire to establish his legacy during his second term office has been a subject regularly discussed among White House officials and US political pundits. Yet, it is uncertain whether a final agreement can be reached and whether it would hold. The notion of how the P5+1, particularly the US, would likely respond to a violation of the treaty by Iran has gone through a transformation process during the negotiations. It was once understood that the US would inevitably decide to stop Iran from moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead by force of arms. Senior Obama administration foreign and defense policy officials made it clear that military intervention was “on the table.” Threats of regime change and of imposing a US form of democracy on Iran by the administration of US President George W. Bush were still ringing in Iranian leaders’ ears when the Iran Talks began. The idea of being attacked by the US became engrained in the psyche of Iran’s leadership, offsetting any idea Obama lacked the will to take military action following the Syria gas attacks debacle. Tehran’s views have changed since then.
Fas est et ab hoste doceri. (It is right to learn even from an enemy.) The P5+1 has served to present a united front to cope with the common danger of a nuclear armed Iran. However, the coalition has not been truly united. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has actually exploited the comity between Russia and its P5+1 partners to protect Russian interests. (The other P5+1 partners may very likely be aware of this.) Putin did not want the P5+1 to take military action against Iran, Russia’s strongest Middle East partner. During the Iran Talks, Russia and Iran made unilateral deals on matters from agriculture to weapon systems. The talks have helped Moscow better understand how Western powers approach issues as Iran’s nuclear program, making Russia better able to handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Russia, as Iran, is coping with Western economic sanctions. Putin has heard many threats to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, through NATO. However, Putin responds to such threats with an enigmatic face. Putin has Russia on the march, seizing territory in a piecemeal fashion, but he undoubtedly has a sense of how far he can go. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin likely believes military action against a capable opponent is the last thing Western political leaders want. (It is the last thing he wants, too!) To that extent, he also likely believes that after he has acquired enough, he will be able to legitimize Russia’s acquisitions through talks.
Initial Russian Concerns about Possible US Military Strikes in Iran
As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to the nuclear negotiation was essential, but it was also rather extraordinary given its ties to Iran. Russia had a very positive, congenial relationship with Iran unlike Western states in the P5+1. Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the US through cooperation, synergy and actuating strategic potential capacities.” When the Iran Talks began, Russia was actually working closely with Iran in support of its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who Western members of the P5+1 opposed. However, despite Iran’s close business and economic ties or ongoing military cooperation with Russia, albeit limited, could not guarantee the US would refrain from moving against its strongest partner in the Middle East. For that reason, Putin likely had genuine concern that Iran would become a target of massive US military action if the Iran Talks did not succeed when they began. Putin had not forgotten that close cooperation between Russia and authorities in Tripoli and Damascus did not deter the Obama administration from promoting and supporting insurrection against them. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, multinational forces under NATO command went beyond imposing a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to Gaddafi as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell and he was killed. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the Syria Opposition Movement which bloomed during the so-called Arab Spring. The removal of Assad and his regime was the Obama administration’s goal.
Moreover, before the Iran Talks began and during the negotiations, Obama and officials in his administration were unambiguous about plans to act militarily against Iran over its nuclear program. According to a March 14, 2013 article in the Times of Israel, Obama explained that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in just over a year and diplomatic efforts have just less than that to halt Iran’s drive to the bomb. The Times of Israel determined Obama was intimating that if diplomatic efforts failed this year or early next year, the US would be forced to carry out military action against Iran. Obama also reportedly explained that he had been “crystal clear” that a nuclear-armed Iran was a “red-line,” and that the US was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with which it could threaten Israel or trigger a regional arms race. In a September 15, 2013 article in the Guardian, Obama sought to shore up the potency of US deterrence against Iran warning that he was still prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear program, which he described as “much closer to our core interests” than Syria’s chemical weapons. A February 26, 2014, Reuters article reported Kerry told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action. Kerry also left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks broke down. The Reuters article further explained that when Obama stated all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, he was using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.
During the talks, urgency was placed on having Iran allow rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place to ensure any movement toward a nuclear weapon would be detected and the West could intervene. If Iran could be kept from moving close to a nuclear weapon, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond militarily to its existence.
Western Allies Prefer Sanctions Over US-Led Military Action
As the nuclear negotiations progressed, it became more apparent to Putin and Russian foreign and defense policy officials that despite their insecurities about US intentions, the threat of military action was a fiction. Russia’s European counterparts in the P5+1 coalition began expressing doubts about the willingness of the US to use military force against Iran. The French were perhaps the first to publicly appraise Obama as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tried to outline what he thought were the reasons for Obama’s tack in a 2013 speech. He stated: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” He suggested this explained “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion. Fabius lamented that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must be given a chance, but she also said “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.” Merkel’s statement diverged considerably from those of Obama and Kerry who indicated a US readiness to act militarily if negotiations failed. The reluctance of Germany to support US military action sent a message to Russia that there was no unity in the West on it. Sanctions remain the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the talks failed. Only the US can effectively act with force against a nuclear capable Iran, but Obama would never want to go it alone against Iran.
In sessions leading to April 2, 2015, urgency was placed on having Iran agree to keep rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place not just throughout the long duration of the agreement but even after the core limits of the agreement expire. That would ensure any movement toward nuclear weapons will be detected and providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There was an apparent belief that if Iran was kept from moving secretly toward a nuclear bomb, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond to its existence. As long as Obama was uncertain military action would achieve all objectives based on his concepts, Putin could imagine Obama refusing to go to war.
Israeli F-16 jets flying in formation. US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s diplomatic reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She explained “the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” For Putin, Sherman’s words ended all guessing on US intentions with Iran.
Military Action Is Sidelined
Ultra vires! (Beyond ones powers!) Guessing over US intentions ended when Putin and his foreign and defense policy officials heard US officials confirm that in which Moscow could not be certain. On April 13, 2015, Haaretz reported US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”
Even the tone in the US Congress softened. Congress drafted a bill that would require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it is completed. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner stated “Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal.” He explained further, “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.” The focus of most observers was the fact that the bill would halt the lifting of sanctions pending a thirty day Congressional review, and culminates in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of sanctions imposed by Congress in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Actually, if Congress rejects the final agreement, Obama could still veto its legislation. It would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail. However, what was most important about the bill for Putin was that Congress accepted more sanctions as means to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not war.
Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and likely views that as a weakness. Putin undoubtedly wants to find ways to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term.
Reality Check Concerning Putin
Unlike the diverse group of cabinet-level officials and policy makers and analysts that advise Obama, Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes his US counterpart wants to be an honest broker. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and operates under the notion that issues in foreign affairs can be resolved at the negotiating table. Given that, Putin and his advisers undoubtedly view Obama in a way akin to renowned United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “boneless wonder.” Putin very likely hopes to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term. Putin and Obama are very different men. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and internal chaos of the 1990s, Putin restored order in Russia by reestablishing the power of the state some might say with little regard for human and political rights. Putin’s style of management was shaped by his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin has been assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are referred to as siloviki (power men). At the pinnacle were those who came from a community of families in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg whose “roots” go back to first political police of the Communist Party known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He went to schools and a university Chekisty (Chekist) community progeny typically attended.
Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent on Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As Putin has noted in public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. In a March 18, 2014 speech, Putin enumerated some actions taken by the West that have fostered his contempt. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally.
Paradoxically, the aggressive behavior Putin attributes to the US has been displayed by him time and again. In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. In November 2014, Putin signed a Russia-Abkhazia Treaty of Alliance and Integration which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the separatist republic. In March 2015, Putin signed the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration which has similar terms. Georgia has no chance of regaining its territories. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort a deal Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. When the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea. Such moves legitimize NATO’s worries.
Putin’s uncongenial attitude toward the West was very apparent while the Iran Talks were still underway. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers (as the one shown above) in US and European airspace prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russia also sold its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran.
Lessons Learned Through the Iran Talks Putin May Be Applying
This uncongenial attitude Putin has harbored toward the West was apparent during the Iran Talks. Perhaps he was testing his P5+1 partners. In August 2014, Russia signed a deal with Iran that undermined Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisaged wider economic cooperation to include closer ties in the oil and gas sector, construction and rebuilding of generating capacity, development of a power supply network infrastructure, machinery, consumer goods, and agriculture. It laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar deal between Moscow and Tehran, the so-called oil-for-goods contract. In addition to that contract, there was the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Iran. The S-300 would neutralize any possibility that Israel could take unilateral action against Iran. That would remain the case until the Israeli Air Force receives F-35 fighters from the US. Only the US Air Force’s small fleet of B-2 stealth bombers would have a chance of hitting Iranian targets properly now. If the US and Europe repeatedly threaten and levy sanctions, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps. Sensing his back is up against the wall, and unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further Western action by making extraordinary threats to use Russian military power. The Russian Ambassador to Denmark threatened that the Danes would become a target of Russian nuclear weapons if they participated in any missile defense program. Danish jets scrambled 58 times in 2014 to head off Russian aircraft. Russian strategic nuclear bombers also conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers and intelligence-gathering jets in US and European airspace have prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russian military aircraft have been flying without transponders over Europe close to civilian aircraft. Putin warned Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. Russia has moved Iskandar ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland and long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea.
An April 18, 2015 Reuters article stated Putin recently softened his anti-US rhetoric only a week after accusing the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” Putin reportedly said on April 18th, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” He then stated, “I mean general efforts directed at making the world economy more democratic, measured, and bilateral, so that the world order is more democratic. We have a common agenda.” Similarly, the BBC reported that on March 6, 2014, after seizing Crimea, Putin told Obama by telephone that US-Russian “relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.” Regarding Crimea, Putin said Russia could not “ignore calls for help and acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law.” Given Obama’s record on the use of force, and what Russia observed during the Iran Talks, Putin may have calculated he has pushed hard enough, and he now can reap a negotiated resolution from Obama. Perhaps Putin assessed that as with Iran, talks might provide him with the chance to achieve many objectives.
The Way Forward
Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (Men readily believe what they want to believe.) The decay of Europe’s defense came as a result of a lack of commitment of the European countries, and to an extent the US, to the stewardship of NATO, militarily. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that did not face an apparent threat. There was no change in thinking despite Putin’s aggressive stance and actions against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” To surmount the impact of what the Western capitals were seeing, they ignored what they saw, made massive military cuts, and failed to meet their military commitments to NATO.
Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis! (Not for you, not for me, but for us!) Meetings between NATO allies can no longer simply amount to rhetorical conversations about collective security in Europe, pledges to do more, and proposals to rearrange the meager military resources currently available to face the vast, mobile, hard-hitting Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Decisions must be made now on what will done in the face of a confrontation with Russia over future aggressive moves against Ukraine or any other sovereign state in Europe. Too many ambiguous political speeches and statements on US military power have already been made to create doubt over whether the US might respond at all. There must be clear discussions on a mutually acceptable political rationale for military action, despite its difficulties and horrors, must be established between the US and the Europe. US and European leaders must confirm now what they will commit and exactly how they will act together militarily. In a manner loud enough for Putin to hear, Obama, in particular, must continually confirm at the UN, in NATO, and in its members’ respective capitals that Europe can count on US support if a military confrontation becomes imminent.