President Barack Obama desperately needs Russia’s help will in addressing the two key challenges he faces in the Middle East, right now -- the crisis in Syria and the Iran nuclear standoff. But President Vladimir Putin is not about to help the Americans resolve those conflicts on their own terms. Instead, he's likely to use the influence that derives from the Western powers' inability to prevail in either setting to shape outcomes less favorable to Washington's preferences, and to press for more concessions to unrelated Russian concerns -- such as plans for NATO missile defenses in Europe that might blunt Russia's nuclear deterrent.
Obama and Putin will finally meet face to face on the sidelines of G-20 meeting in Mexico from June 18 to 19 -- the same dates on which Iran and the P5+1 will convene in Moscow for a new round of nuclear talks. There will be considerable pressure on the Moscow meetings to produce concrete agreements that can keep a diplomatic process going and avoid confrontation — a tall order given the gulf between Iran and its interlocutors that emerged in last week's talks Baghdad. The Iranians were shocked by the P5+1 offering no prospect of relief from sanctions targeting Iran’s oil and banking sector, even if it agreed to the confidence-building steps proposed by the world powers, including halting enrichment to 20% and shipping out stocks of uranium enriched to that level. Those steps would buy only minor concessions from Western powers, which made it clear that the only way to stop the unprecedented European oil embargo and measures against Iran’s banks was to heed U.N. Security Council demands that it freeze all uranium enrichment.
If the new sanctions take effect on July 1, as planned, Iran's incentive for remaining at the negotiating table will drop substantially. Yet, Obama faces election pressure against appearing to make any concessions to Iran, with Israel demanding an even tougher line and accusing the Administration of wasting time. Western leaders don’t share Israel's alarmist assessment of the threat posed by Iran, and they want to avoid a confrontation that could have disastrous effects on the struggling world economy. If Obama is to avoid being pressed into confrontation while appearing to hang tough on Iran, he'll need Putin’s help in crafting creative compromises.
Iran is at the negotiating table not simply because of sanctions, but because its presumptive allies, Russia and China, have demanded that it do more to demonstrate the peaceful intent of its nuclear program. And the agreed negotiating framework — step-by-step reciprocal measures to build confidence — was devised by the Russians. Hope of extracting concessions from Iran depend more on the position of Iran’s friends and trading partners than on the tough line taken by Western governments.
But Russia’s interventions on Iran — just as its stance on Syria — will be driven by its own interests and Putin’s reading of them. Putin is looking to reassert Russian influence, particularly in the Middle East, and that means curbing Washington’s ability to resolve a crisis like Syria. Though Russia has lately been critical of the Assad regime, it is always careful to apportion equal blame for Syrian violence on the armed opposition and those supplying their weapons. It appears unlikely to lend its weight to any regime-change effort or to allow legal authorization for military action via the U.N. And Putin's own track record in suppressing domestic rebellion suggests he's not likely to be shamed into abandoning Assad.
Russia’s cooperation on Syria and Iran is likely to be based, first and foremost, on unsentimentally pursuing its own interests in how those crises are resolved. And coopration on solving problems that pose more immediate problems for Washington than for Moscow may also see Putin demand a quid pro quo on Russian concerns such as missile defense. In short, Russian cooperation won't come cheap, nor in the form the U.S. would prefer.