The United States and three European Union nations -- Britain, France, and Germany (the EU-3) -- remain determined to prevent Iran from moving ahead with its nuclear program, which they suspect is meant to develop nuclear weapons. But Russia seems to be an obstacle.
The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a Washington-based policy-research center, held a seminar on the problem on May 25 that focused on Russia's role in resolving the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.
Despite Russia's statements against nuclear-weapons proliferation, one of the leaders of the meeting said it would be hard to say that this is Moscow's overwhelming concern.
Stephen Sestanovich, a CFR senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies, said Russia's unwillingness to get tough with Iran is due in part to Russia's commercial interests in Iran and Moscow's tendency to oppose UN sanctions in general.
Is Russia's Postion Shifting?
Sestanovich said that events surrounding the Iran issue over the last year -- these events include Iran's behavior regarding inspections and inflammatory statements by Ahmadinejad -- suggest Russia might take a harder line with Tehran in the future.
Also, Sestanovich said, Russia sees that the United States and the EU have been more unified than they were ahead of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Sestanovich said the administration of US President George W. Bush has made some effort to persuade Russia to side with the West, such as raising the possibility of full membership of the Group of Eight (G-8) leading industrialized nations and the World Trade Organization (WTO).
But, given Russia's strong economy driven by high world energy prices, these incentives may seem weak to Moscow, Sestanovich said.
At the same time, Sestanovich said, he believes recent US lectures about the state of Russia's democracy probably haven't driven much of a wedge between Moscow and the West, at least on the Iran issue. He said the Russian leadership is used to such lectures and doesn't tend to link them with matters such as Iran.
What may be lost in all the talk of efforts to get Russia to agree with the West, Sestanovich said, is what he called Moscow's clear and straightforward approach to Iran.
A Different Approach
"The US-EU discussion so far has been about carrots and sticks, sort of what we threaten the Iranians with or what we offer them," Sestanovich argued. "And the Russians are coming into this discussion in a slightly different way. They're saying, 'We need to rethink what we're demanding of the Iranians, and not what price they'll pay or what benefits they'll gain.'"
Sestanovich said Moscow agrees with the West that the Iranian government is doing wrong by proceeding with its nuclear program, but that Moscow also believes Tehran can "be redeemed." He said the United States and the EU believe such an attitude from Russia undermines their efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.
The other leader of the seminar was Charles Kupchan, the CFR's director of Europe studies. Kupchan said the Bush administration eventually may have as much trouble persuading the EU-3 to get tough with Iran as it now has persuading Russia.
US-EU Agreement in Danger?
Kupchan said he expects the current cohesion between the United States and the EU to last only a relatively short while, so long as punitive actions against Iran include what he called "light sanctions," such as denying visas to Iranian leaders and freezing some assets.
"But I would guess that if it goes beyond that, and it may well, to the imposition of serious sanctions -- the withdrawal of investments, an economic embargo, trying to prevent the sale of Iranian oil or the import of gasoline -- that the cohesiveness will disappear," Kupchan said.
He added that Washington's policy is more combative than the EU's. For one thing, the United States very much wants regime change in Tehran. Also, the Bush administration is far more convinced than the Europeans that harsher sanctions will be effective.
Third, and most important, Kupchan said, is that the EU is far more reluctant than Washington to take military action to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Kupchan said this opposition eventually may persuade the United States to open some kind of contact with Iran. Washington and Tehran have shunned one another since the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew the shah, but recently Iran has made overtures about contacts with the United States.
Some European leaders reportedly have urged Bush to open direct talks with Iran. Kupchan said German Chancellor Angela Merkel did so during her recent visit to Washington. So far, however, Bush has rejected such calls.
"If that [more direct US-Iran contact] doesn't happen, I think it will leave Europe in a position of saying [to Washington], 'You didn't try, you didn't move down the diplomatic route, therefore the reason to take the next step toward sanctions or the use of military force isn't there. You've got to exhaust all diplomatic options first,'" Kupchan said. "My guess is that sooner or later, the Bush administration will engage, if only because it realizes that the imperatives of alliance management require it."