Missiles will be key factor in Moscow moves on Iran

Russia’s quid pro quo for supporting the US over Iran will be the basing of missiles in Eastern Europe

By Tim Marshall, July 9, 2009

A host of interested parties examined every word spoken at this week’s Russia-USA summit, but few as closely as Iran and Israel.

Both countries looked for signs that Moscow might cut Tehran loose and move closer to the Americans on the Iran question. Neither saw much to support that, but they will have noted the clear American attempt to bring Russia on-side in a process that will be continued throughout the year.

It revolves around Russia’s vehement opposition to America basing its anti ballistic missile (ABM) system in Poland and the Czech Republic. For the Russians this is a red line the encroaching Americans must not cross. For Washington it’s a prudent defensive measure aimed at combating any future Iranian nuclear missile programme.

Obama may not be as keen on ABM as his predecessor, but he can’t give it up without getting something in return. In Moscow it appeared that something was Russian help on Iran.

He hinted at this during an address in the Kremlin, then went further the following day in a speech to business graduates.

“I want us to work together with Russia on a missile defence architecture that makes us all safer. But if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs is eliminated, the driving force for missile defence in Europe will be eliminated and that is in our mutual interest,” he told them.

Loosely translated, this appears to mean “Ditch your relationship with Iran, join us at the UN when the going gets tough, and if we stop them, there’s no need for our missiles in your backyard”.

Not that the President believes in geo-political backyards. In the same speech he said: “There is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence.” This was, he said, something that had no place in the 21st century. Maybe, but the Kremlin doesn’t see it that way.

For Moscow, Poland and the Czech Republic are in Russia’s sphere of influence regardless of which century it is. So, for them Obama’s idea of eliminating the threat from Iran could coincide with Russia’s idea of eliminating the USA’s ABM in its backyard.

This might ultimately fit the complicated chess game both sides are playing, but not yet. The Russians know that, as the months pass, the Americans will seek tougher measures against Iran. They can wait before playing their Iran move to try and take ABM off the board.

In the meantime Moscow can continue to pretend that Iran is a friend, and continue helping Iran’s nuclear efforts.

In Moscow Obama mentioned Iran 12 times; President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin didn’t utter the word once. All three men know that, for now, Iran matters more to America.

Obama also said, in a TV interview that he had “absolutely not” given the green light for an Israeli strike on Iran. This was a cheap headline. He was hardly about to say: “Yes, and it’s at 11.40 on Thursday,” but it was a reminder that not everyone is looking at the same clock as the Americans and Russians.

Tim Marshall is Foreign Editor of Sky News

Last updated: 3:42pm, July 9 2009