Amid the current turmoil in the Middle East, the White House is quietly gearing up for another challenge.
This weekend, President Bush will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in a historic meeting - one that could further define the future of our war on terrorism.
By all accounts, the summit is shaping up to be a major success. Over the past several months, an unexpected consensus has emerged between Moscow and Washington on a number of critical international issues.
On missile defense, Russia - though still pressing for a strategic framework accord to replace the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty - has agreed to some substantial cooperation. According to recent news accounts, Washington and Moscow are already in the process of developing a joint, early warning center to monitor ballistic missile launches. This facility, once operational, will provide assessments to both countries about unauthorized launches and other missile activity, Russian experts have revealed.
On the Middle East, Moscow has been uncharacteristically quiet. In a drastic departure from standard Kremlin operating procedure, Mr. Putin has so far taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the current escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence. When he has spoken out, the Russian president has limited himself to nominal diplomatic statements in support of a rapid and peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Russia even appears to have come around on the Iraq issue. Back in January, when Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz flew to Moscow to lobby for renewed diplomatic support, the reception he got was decidedly chilly. After refusing to consider Russian suggestions about allowing the return of U.N. inspectors, Mr. Aziz was systematically frozen out of meetings with the Russian foreign minister and other key players in the Putin government. This cold shoulder may have something to do with the fact that Russia's influential energy conglomerates have begun to sour on Baghdad. With Saddam Hussein's intransigence precluding the possibility of large-scale oil and gas development, Russia's major energy players now seem to be throwing their weight behind a post-Saddam Iraq.
But on another topic - Iran - Moscow and Washington remain worlds apart. Over the past 14 months alone, the Kremlin and the Islamic Republic have inked an array of multi-year defense accords (valued in the billions of dollars) in deals indicative of the vibrancy of their strategic relationship. As a result, Iran is now the third-largest consumer of Russian arms (behind China and India), with an arms trade of more than $500 million annually. And, despite recent rumors about a chill in ties, the relationship between Moscow and Tehran is growing rapidly. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi's early April trip to Russia, for example, yielded an official ratification of the Treaty on the Foundations of Mutual Relations and Principles of Cooperation drafted by Mr. Putin and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammed Khatami, in March of last year. What this means is clear. As Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov put it, the agreement "provides a solid legal basis for developing the Russian-Iranian relations over a long haul."
Moscow's interest is understandable. Russia's ailing defense industry is in dire need of clients, and Iran is a willing buyer of Russian military technology. Moscow also needs a partner to retain its de facto monopoly on Central Asian energy, especially in light of Washington's conspicuous post-September 11 presence in the region. Iran fits the bill here as well: Recent aggressive moves on the part of the Islamic Republic have had a chilling effect on Caspian energy development, retaining Russia's near-stranglehold on regional resources. Perhaps most importantly, engagement of Iran has effectively neutralized the one way that Tehran can really threaten Moscow - through its support of Islamist insurgencies in the Caucasus.
Moscow's love affair with Tehran might be a marriage of convenience, but its effects have been disastrous for the United States. Fueled by Russian arms, Iran has begun a sustained - and successful - conventional military buildup, one that has put it on the cusp of being the Gulf's dominant military power. Iran's development of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has also charted some notable successes, courtesy of Kremlin assistance. American intelligence estimates increasingly classify Tehran as an emerging missile power, and growing evidence suggests that Iran's mullahs are themselves now actively exporting ballistic missile and WMD technology abroad. Russian arms sales have also allowed Tehran to commence a major strategic expansion into the Persian Gulf. As Defense Intelligence Agency Director Thomas Wilson recently revealed to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Iran now has the naval power to temporarily cut off the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf.
Certainly, none of this is good news for Washington. Iran's rising power has left regional neighbors - essential to an American campaign on Iraq - quite jittery. And recent Iranian support for a proposed Iraqi oil embargo in response to Israel's incursion into the West Bank has sent chills down the spine of our allies in Europe. Reassuring them, and regaining momentum in the war on terrorism, requires taking Iran off the table.
This means that the relationship between Iran and its enabler, Russia, must top the agenda at the upcoming Moscow summit. The Bush administration, poised to dramatically expand its war on terrorism, should make rolling back support for Tehran the sine qua non of a new strategic partnership with the Kremlin. Our long-term success in the Middle East - and our relationship with Russia - depends on it.