Linkage is the time honored practice of getting another party's cooperation on an issue of importance to oneself by promising to help or threatening to hinder that other party on another issue of importance to it. Moscow is clearly trying to get American and European acquiescence (if not approval) for the gains it has made in Georgia by threatening to increase Russian cooperation with Iran if this is not forthcoming.
The Kremlin's diplomatic aims became clearer on September 23, when Russian officials announced that they would not participate in talks at the United Nations that were intended to explore new sanctions against Iran. Russian officials cited the "intensity" of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's schedule during the UN General Assembly as the main reason that Russia could not participate in a meeting about Iran, the official RIA-Novosti news agency reported.
For almost a month, Moscow has been dropping not-so-subtle hints that it wants a geopolitical deal in order to continue cooperation with Western states on the Iranian nuclear issue. In his interview with CNN broadcast on August 29, for example, Russian Prime Minister Putin said that if the West did not want Russia's cooperation on the Iranian nuclear (as well as other) issues, "God bless, do this work yourself."
In an effort to up the pressure on the United States and European Union to accede to Russia's wishes, Britain's Sunday Times reported on September 7 that the Kremlin is considering increasing Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear program in response to America's recent efforts to help Georgia.
The prospect of an increasingly anti-American Russia further cooperating with an already anti-American Iran is frightening. Together, they could gain a dominating share of Europe Union members states' natural gas imports, making it difficult for Brussels to go against either Moscow's or Tehran's wishes. In addition, acquiring nuclear weapons might well give Iran the increased confidence to think it can intervene far more than it has in Iraq, Afghanistan, the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon.
But will this happen? Not necessarily. Iranian media commentary since the outbreak of the Georgian-Russian conflict indicates that Tehran is uneasy about that conflict's implications for Iran. Soon after the Georgian-Russian clash broke out, some Iranian pundits did predict that the deterioration in Russian-American relations would benefit Iran concerning the nuclear issue. As time has passed, however, Iranian commentary has grown more cautious. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
A stark example of Tehran's increasing skepticism was a September 2 editorial in the conservative newspaper Kayhan, which decried Putin's comments to CNN for exposing the limits of his willingness to help Iran. Putin's comments made it clear to policy-makers in Tehran that the Iranian nuclear issue is nothing more than a bargaining chip in Moscow's eyes. If the West made concessions to Russia on Georgia, the Kayhan commentary noted, Moscow could be expected to cooperate with the West against Iran.
True to form, Iran's belligerently anti-American and anti-Israeli president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, blamed the outbreak of the conflict in South Ossetia on "Zionists" when he was in Bishkek for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit with Russian, Chinese, and Central Asian leaders. On September 3, though, E'temad appeared to criticize Ahmadinejad when it noted; "at exactly the moment when Iranian officials were treating the Shanghai summit as an opportunity for allying themselves with Moscow in the Caucasian game, Vladimir Putin's remarks about Russia's commitment to cooperation with America over Iran's nuclear case threw all anticipations into disarray, and, once again, the hope that Russia would take Iran's side in the Security Council was diminished more than ever before."
Such press commentary, of course, may not be indicative of Iranian government policy. That fact that it is occurring, though, in a country where freedom of the press is circumscribed suggests that the Iranian government is genuinely wary of Russia's intentions.
Iran has good reason to be nervous. Already a difficult partner for Tehran, a Russia with an increased sense of its own power and importance could well become even more undependable. Of particular concern to officials in Tehran, Russian recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian secession from Georgia could stoke separatist sentiment inside Iran, especially among the large Azeri minority. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].For a Western perspective, there is one silver lining in all this. To the extent that Russian actions in Georgia serve to reinforce Iran's cautious approach toward Russia, it provides an incentive for Washington and Tehran to work together against what is emerging as a common threat to both. Achieving this, of course, will be very difficult. The failure to do so, by contrast, will primarily benefit Moscow.
Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University.