This coming week, the city of New York will host a diplomatic marathon. The keynote event, of course, will be the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly, which aims to implement the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and to alleviate poverty by 2015. Many world leaders will be joining the party, with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad already on his way. Classy restaurants and hotels are preparing for their presidential clientèle, and East Timorese diplomats have already booked out a restaurant, where they will be enjoying a feast of “pasta, seafood, steak” among other hearty Italian food. Will this UN summit succeed in moving the world towards the MDGs, and the elimination of poverty? This remains to be seen. Meanwhile, a more low-key, but no less important diplomatic meeting is also occurring on the sidelines of the main summit. Will this special Foreign Ministers’ session of the NATO-Russia Council (NRC) yield fruit?
Both sides have been looking forward to this informal NRC meeting in New York, with talk of a NATO-Russia “strategic partnership” in the air. Such hopes are probably overblown. To be sure, NATO and Russia have been trying—since the August 2008 crisis—to effectively ‘reset’ their relations by working closely together on areas of mutual interest. Sometimes these aspirations have been successful. Many other times they haven’t. Ongoing points of tension include: Russia’s continuing (if not expanding) military presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the Russian rejection of the idea that Moscow should join NATO; and the strange story that NATO might be purchasing Russian warplanes to practice shooting down these potential enemies. Afghanistan seems to be the lowest-common denominator issue, on which NATO and Russia mostly agree. But the two inter-related issues which are likely to be on the agenda of the NRC, in New York this week, are Iran and a pan-European ballistic missile shield.
In the run-up to this week’s meeting, NATO has sent (another) clear signal to Russia that, at its November Lisbon summit, the Alliance will be inviting Moscow to participate in a common European missile defence system. The problem is that NATO and Russia must first agree on which specific threat this anti-missile system would be aimed at. Russia essentially assumes that a U.S.-led European missile shield would necessarily be aimed at weakening its own nuclear deterrent. But leaving Russia out of the anti-missile equation, as a recent Foreign Affairs article put it, “might lead to a new crisis in U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russian relations in a decade or so, when the United States’ and NATO’s new missile defence systems will likely be able to destroy significant numbers of Russia’s strategic missiles.” To bridge the gaps in perceptions, the NATO-Russia Council is finishing a joint threat review this year, and the outcome of this process will influence the odds of Russia’s participation in this anti-missile system. The elephant in the room, of course, is Iran.
NATO countries see Iran’s expanding ballistic missile program as a potential threat. (The exact range and intentions behind this program remain contested). Nevertheless, Teheran’s developing conventional missile capabilities appear much more ominous when juxtaposed with an equally burgeoning nuclear enrichment programme. Indeed, following an inspection of Iranian facilities last week, and amidst U.S. allegations of Iranian pressures on U.N. inspectors, one International Atomic Energy Agency official has bluntly charged that Iran is pursuing “programs which have no credible peaceful purposes,” and “remains determined to pursue a nuclear program which could provide it with military capabilities.” Despite four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions imposed upon Iran, the country is continuing to enrich uranium at higher levels, in breach of its international commitments. Thus, the Western Allies remain unconvinced by Iranian justifications that theirs is an entirely “peaceful nuclear program”.
For its part, Russia plays a fine balancing game with regards to its Iran policy. On the one hand, it supports sanctions against the Iranian régime. On the other, it helps Iran to enrich uranium, by helping with the completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, for example. Hence, Russia’s role in international negotiations over Iranian nuclear enrichment, as one analyst put it, is to be “both the carrot and stick provider.” Russia can, within limits, pressure Iran to comply with international law; or Russia can frustrate the military planning of the United States (and Israel) by going through with its sale of S-300 air defence systems to Iran. (Rumours are circulating that Belarus may have acted either on its own, or as a facilitator, in selling such defensive weapons to Iran). Following an Iran-Russia spat earlier this year, when President Ahmadinejad threatened that Moscow would join the long list of Iranian “enemies”, Iran is now trying to mend relations with Russia.
Hence, Russia has been rather successful in marketing itself to NATO Allies as the key to clinching a deal with Iran over its nuclear enrichment programme. But as the two sides meet in New York this week, and discuss the prospects of a joint NATO-Russian missile defence shield—presumably aimed at Iran and other ‘rogue’ states—will they find any common ground? This is improbable. “In reality,” Russia’s Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov recently stated, “we want to actively participate” in the construction of the missile shield. Nevertheless, this official maintains that Russia’s “calculations show it is aimed against us.” If NATO and/or the U.S. were planning a defence missile shield against Russia, it remains unclear why they would be involving Russia in the project. But Serdyukov’s suspicions—even if they are not shared by Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev—exemplify the difficulty of creating a pan-European missile defence shield.
Clearly, it is not the technical feasibility of such a missile project which represents the single greatest challenge, but the political will which is needed on both sides. Would Russia undermine its ‘multipolar’ foreign policy favouring its Euro-Atlantic partners at the expense of Iran and, possibly, China? Or, as Marcel de Haas wondered, “would NATO be able to command a Russian missile to destroy an Iranian one headed for the U.S.?” This week’s NRC meeting will go some way towards testing the political viability of a NATO-Russia missile shield. The U.N. Security Council P5+1 (Germany) group will also be discussing Iran’s nuclear programme in New York this week. A new round of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is also expected to take place. But this week’s diplomatic marathon will be as much about the future of NATO-Russia relations, and Iran’s nuclear programme, as it will be about the elimination of poverty and peace in the Middle East. When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stands before world leaders for his speech, on Friday, will he wink to Ahmadinejad or Obama?