09/25/2008 12:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Iran Factor

This week at the United Nations, with President Ahmadinejad once again in New York to deliver an address to the General Assembly, the U.S. was hoping to gather the P5+1 ministers to discuss imposing further sanctions on Iran for its refusal to abide by previous Security Council resolutions demanding that it suspend uranium enrichment. Russia, apparently just a little miffed at the American reaction to its invasion of Georgia last month, blocked the meeting, handing a major victory to Iran and making Ahmadinejad's visit to the UN a little less uncomfortable than it might have been with the major powers discussing new sanctions against his country.

For a number of years now American foreign policy with regards Iran has revolved almost exclusively around how to prevent that nation from joining the nuclear club, and how to rein in its ability to negatively influence the Middle East peace process through its support of groups such as Hezbollah of Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Since the Iraq invasion, an unintended and almost comical consequence of which is that Shiite Iran is now by far the most influential player with its Shiite majority neighbor, US foreign policy has also struggled with how to mitigate that influence. Regardless of specifics, though, the U.S. position vis-à- vis Iran has been, almost since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, that it is an enemy nation with geopolitical interests diametrically opposed to ours. Securing Russian cooperation in pressuring Iran has been, in the American mind, a key to achieving long-term success in at least stopping Iran's drive to becoming a nuclear power. But the recent Russian invasion of Georgia and its subsequent recognition of two breakaway regions should actually be cause for re-evaluation of US policy towards Iran, the only country of significance standing between Russia and the strategically critical Persian Gulf.

The Russian adventure in South Ossetia and a renewed willingness to use raw military power to check Western expansion to its borders may have been viewed with great alarm in the West, but the Iranian leadership quickly recognized the opportunity to once again, as they have over the past two hundred years or so and regardless of regime, play the great powers against each other to serve their own interests. While it became evident at the end of August that Russia would no longer be likely to go along with another UN resolution (and further sanctions) on Iran's nuclear program, much to the delight of the Iranians, there was also in Tehran, among politicians and ordinary people alike, a sense of wonderment at how the U.S. could have so misjudged Russia as well as a sense of how the U.S. was fundamentally misguided in its policy towards Iran, a country, after all, that throughout the Cold War stood as a bulwark against Soviet hegemony and expansionism southward to the warm water ports of the Persian Gulf. Iran's nuanced but pro-Russian position on the Georgian conflict has ensured that the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant, its opening long delayed, will be soon operational, and Iran is also likely to benefit from Russian largesse in future military arms and equipment sales. But Iran is not instinctively pro-Russian and in fact has much to fear from the bear to its north, having fought wars against (and lost territory to) her in previous centuries, and Iranians harbor a deep distrust of Russian intentions. Iranians have not yet forgotten Nikita Khrushchev's assessment of their country as a "low hanging fruit" ready to be picked at any time by Soviet harvesters.

Recent history and rhetoric aside, there is far less distrust of America among Iranians, even among the leadership, than appears on the surface. In my many trips to Iran, most recently during the Georgian crisis and through the two U.S. party conventions, I have yet to come across any Iranian politician, diplomat or ordinary person who doesn't identify, culturally or politically, more closely with the West than the East. Iranians have been, in the last few weeks, as engrossed with the US presidential elections as Americans are, and hopeful that whomever wins the presidency this fall, US policy towards Iran will be in for a change (although most recognize that should John McCain prevail, mending relations with the US will be a somewhat more difficult task than if Barack Obama does). Tehran's summer was one of long lines at gas stations, rampant double-digit inflation, electricity blackouts and general malaise about the state of the economy and the future direction of the country. Iranians are now looking to their own presidential elections in 2009 and Iran's relations with the outside world will play a significant role in those elections, for many Iranians view the current US-Iran standoff as being partly responsible for the weak economy. No one in Iran believes that better relations with Russia, or a strong tilt to Russia, will result in a better economy, better the lives of ordinary Iranians, or will insulate Iran fully from debilitating sanctions of the kind, such as banking, that America can impose, unilaterally or otherwise.

While Iran will not hesitate to continue to take advantage of the Georgian crisis in bolstering its nuclear position (with the Russians happy to go along, perhaps hoping to once and for all bring Iran into its sphere of influence), the U.S., which often misreads Iranian intentions, appears to be failing to take an advantage of its own in countering Russian moves in the region. Iran has time and again indicated its willingness to enter into direct negotiations with the U.S. on all matters of mutual interest, but will not do so with pre-conditions, something the Iranians view as humiliating and beneath their dignity. The emergence of the Russian bear from its enforced hibernation might have had American diplomats dusting off the archives in Foggy Bottom, looking for clues as to how the US can entice Iran to its side and away from Russia, but if the State Department has indeed weighed in with an opinion, the administration seems to have ignored it. The time has probably run out for the Bush administration to do anything with or about Iran (and the financial crisis has probably killed any idea of a pre-emptive strike, once and for all), but the next president, whomever he is, would be wise to examine the situation in the new light of a Russia, one whose president's eyes may not be as revealing of his character and intentions as President Bush once assumed, and one that intends to challenge America's self-proclaimed status as the world's only superpower. With American naval bases firmly established in allied Persian Gulf countries, projecting American power in the Middle East, one might wonder if, or worry that, in the future a Russian naval base might be built on the north side of the Gulf, i.e., on Iranian territory.

As one Iranian in Tehran said to me (only half-jokingly) at the height of the crisis in the Caucasus, the best U.S. reaction to Russia's invasion of Georgia would be to arm Iran to teeth with the latest American weaponry. Dick Cheney's late-summer visits to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan may have been intended as a strong statement of support for the former Soviet republics and a warning to Russia, but it was toothless gesture (much like Condoleezza Rice's silly scolding of the Russians last week) that did little other than annoy the Russians. The truth is, had he instead visited Tehran, he would have truly frightened them.