A day after slapping travel bans on John McCain, Mary Landrieu, and John Boehner, Russia's Vladimir Putin called today for a temporary halt in his tit-for-tat sanctions battle with the United States and the E.U. over his annexation of Crimea. But despite the truce—if it can indeed be called that—more serious battlegrounds between Russia and the West are already coming into view. On Wednesday, Russia gave the first real confirmation that the struggles over Crimea could leak over into the crucial ongoing multi-party talks on Iran's nuclear program.
Regarding the talks between Iran and the P5+1 coalition, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax News Agency, "We wouldn't like to use these talks as an element of the game of raising the stakes, taking into account the sentiments in some European capitals, Brussels and Washington ... but if they force us into that, we will take retaliatory measures here as well." The subtext was clear to anyone familiar with gangster movies and their cliches: Nice nuclear weapons talks you got here ... it'd be a shame if something happened to them. But as much as Russia clearly relishes the leverage it holds over the last best hope for President Obama's foreign policy legacy, it's unclear how much control they have over the success of the talks—or if scuttling them would even be in Russia's best interest.
After all, Russia has been a constructive member of the Iran negotiations since 2006. Russian cooperation with the talks has been "pretty good so far, considering that ... Russia tends to underestimate Iran's nuclear weapons potential," says Gary Samore, President Obama's advisor on weapons of mass destruction until 2012. Suzanne Maloney, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the Russians have been "more than cooperative."
In the New York Times yesterday, Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, warned that Russia may try to undercut sanctions by opening up trade with Iran. "If you're Putin and you think you're going to be a target of sanctions, the most obvious leverage is in the Iranian file, where Russian cooperation is so important," Dubowitz said. He referred specifically to a tentative barter deal in which Russia would supply Iran with unspecified equipment and goods in exchange for 500,000 barrels of oil a day. (The swap was first reported by Reuters in January and subsequently denied by the Russian government.)