US and Russia: How best to resolve Iran’s nuclear puzzle?

US and Russia: How best to resolve Iran’s nuclear puzzle?

In late 2011, I had the opportunity to participate in a meeting of international experts over Iranian nuclear activities. Although some of the scholars stressed greater instability would result from a military attack on Iran, others called for much more pressure to be applied on the region through stronger sanctions. While exchanging ideas with my colleagues, I raised a few questions of crucial importance both to the United States and Russia. What will Russia’s response to a possible U.S. or Israel strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities be? Can Washington win Moscow’s more constructive cooperation on Iran? And what is the way out of the Iranian nuclear crisis?

The latest scandalous International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) evidence of Tehran’s secret nuclear weapons work has made us think strategically of imminent dangers arising from Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is fair to say the position of Russia and the U.S. with regard to Iran is therefore especially relevant. Even though Russia and the U.S. have a shared interest in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, their attitudes and approaches toward Tehran are different.

Amid growing instability in the post-Sept. 11 Eurasian theater, the prospects of a nuclear Iran look disturbing enough. Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon would substantially alter the strategic balance in the entire region and could fundamentally challenge Russia’s security policy in the southern tier of the post-Soviet territory. Recently, in a private conversation with me, Russian colleagues agreed a nuclear-ready Iran could embolden regional terrorist networks and eventually destabilize the situation in many of the countries in Eurasia. Such a scenario contains some serious risks for the Kremlin’s security policy on Russia’s southern borders and would have a number of potentially important strategic consequences for the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Caspian basin.

Clearly a new, more enduring U.S.-Russian constructive cooperation is more imperative than ever in order to address the Iranian nuclear crisis. Whether Washington and Moscow succeed in better coordinating their policies on Iran will depend considerably on their joint efforts to solve the complexities of the Iranian nuclear conundrum and take steps to avert risks and dangers facing the U.S. and Russia today, in both a positive and negative sense.

More precisely, U.S-Russian cooperation in preventing the worst manifestations of the Iranian nuclear quandary can reinforce a constructive relationship between the two sides in a positive sense. Otherwise, Iranian nuclear activities could become an irritant for the future of U.S.-Russian relations, impacting U.S-Russian cooperation in relation to global nuclear nonproliferation in the negative sense.

Washington and Moscow have enough potential to pursue cooperative security policies and resolve Iran’s nuclear puzzle. However, the U.S. and Russia must find a new basis for building a common approach, if constructive cooperation is to continue. The challenges of crafting a cooperative U.S.-Russian approach on Iran appear more regional than global, but the implications of success or failure will be international.

There are two points of agreement between the U.S. and Russia. Both are against nuclear weapons proliferation and both desire to do away with international terrorist networks that tend to concentrate on having nuclear weapons in their hands.

One vital question, however, remains to be answered, which arises necessarily out of the relation of U.S and Russia to Iran’s nuclear conundrum: What will happen if the two great powers miss this opportunity to cooperate?

Dr Elkhan Nuriyev is author of ‘The South Caucasus at the Crossroads.’ He was the founding director of the Baku-based Center for Strategic Studies.