In February, the Obama administration sent a secret letter to Moscow in which it reportedly offered up its predecessor's plans for missile defenses in Europe in exchange for a more constructive Russian role on dealing with Iran's nuclear program. The Kremlin happily pocketed that proposal, but made no firm commitments as to its cooperation in squeezing Tehran. So what does Russia really think of Iran and its nuclear ambitions?
In Washington, conventional wisdom has long held that the partnership between Russia and Iran is strong - and getting stronger. There's good reason for this assumption. Moscow has been a key strategic ally and atomic enabler of the Islamic Republic for years, and the fruits of that collaboration are by now painfully obvious. If all goes as planned, Iranian officials say, the Russian-built plutonium reactor in the southern Iranian city of Bushehr will come online sometime later this year. Once it does, they have made no secret of the fact that they hope to engage Russia in the construction of several additional nuclear facilities.
At least publicly, Moscow appears comfortable with that idea. Kremlin policymakers from President Dmitry Medvedev on down have affirmed their support for Iran's nuclear "rights" and waved away Western concerns that the Islamic Republic's nuclear efforts are intended to ultimately develop a weapon.
But that does not necessarily mean the Russian government views the Iranian regime as benign, or that its allegiance to Tehran is absolute. In the past, a number of noted Russian statesmen and experts have gone against the Kremlin grain to warn about the dangers associated with Iran's ayatollahs going nuclear. Among the most prominent is Yevgeny Velikhov, the secretary of Russia's influential Public Chamber and a close confidant of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who warned in April 2007 that "[i]t is important that Iran does not get nuclear weapons. ... If Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will be very negative for the security of the whole world."
More recently, the one sounding the alarm has been Maj. Gen. Vladimir Dvorkin. At a conference in Moscow earlier this month, Gen. Dvorkin - a former top Soviet arms control negotiator who now heads the Center for Strategic Nuclear Forces - outlined that "Iran is actively working on a missile development program" and warned that the Islamic Republic's growing stockpile of ballistic missiles "will most likely be able to threaten the whole of Europe" in the near future.
But the more acute danger, according to Gen. Dvorkin, is that Tehran could marry that capability with its burgeoning nuclear program - with major geopolitical results: "The real threat is that Iran, which is already ignoring all resolutions and sanctions issued by the U.N. Security Council, will be practically 'untouchable' after acquiring nuclear-power status and will be able to expand its support of terrorist organizations, including Hamas and Hezbollah."
That experts in Russia are increasingly seized of the potentially destabilizing effects of Iranian nuclearization should hardly come as a surprise. Geographically closer to Iran, their country is already within striking distance of Tehran's increasingly robust strategic arsenal. Officials in Moscow are acutely aware that Iran can play a much more destabilizing role in the greater Middle East - including the former Soviet majority-Muslim republics of Central Asia - than it does at present.
It is surprising that the United States and its allies so far have failed to parlay those worries into a real, constructive dialogue with the Kremlin over the common threat to both countries posed by the current regime in Tehran.
During his tenure, President George W. Bush's overtures to Moscow on the subject were more procedure than policy, stopping short of seriously engaging Russia's leaders on international security issues that, in turn, mattered to them.
Today, the Obama administration's plans to "push the reset button" on U.S.-Russia relations have focused upon some of these tactical areas - among them new arms control negotiations and greater efforts to stabilize Afghanistan.
On a larger strategic level, however, Washington has failed to convince Moscow that lasting collaboration in those arenas, and in others, will only come about through a meeting of the minds on Iran. If and when it does, the White House and the Kremlin may find they have much to talk about.