Autocracies United
Why “reset” with Russia and “engagement” with Iran have failed


Clifford D. May

Diplomacy is not a science, but sometimes diplomatic theories can be tested. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama hypothesized that relations with both Iran and Russia could be much improved. The key, he suggested, was offering respect and demonstrating a commitment to engagement and compromise. 

 And so, on Jan. 28, 2009, Obama gave his first sit-down interview as President of the United States to Al-Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite network. He said he thought it important “to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. . . . if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” 

A few days later, on February 7, Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy on behalf of “an administration that’s determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America’s relations around the world.” He repeated Obama’s offer to Iran, proposing, even more ambitiously, that the U.S. and Iran undertake “a shared struggle against extremism.”

Biden then reached out in another direction, saying it was “time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.” The following month, in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button on which the Russian word for reset was written. Or so she thought. The correct term would have been perezagruzka; instead, the word used was peregruzka — which means “overload” or “overcharged.” The Russian daily newspaper Kommersant ran on its front page a picture of the button, with the caption: “Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.”

The results since then: continuing manipulation, intimidation, and censorship of the Russian press; continuing bullying of and aggression against former Soviet states; support for Iran’s nuclear-weapons program; multiple murders in Chechnya (not a cause of significant outrage in the Muslim world); cronyism, corruption, and the oppression of dissidents and political opponents including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-prominent industrialist who dared challenge the political order. Tuesday marked the eighth anniversary of his incarceration.

And this month, Russia, along with China, vetoed what Amb. Susan Rice called a “vastly watered down” Security Council resolution criticizing the “violence, torture, and persecution” being inflicted on peaceful protesters by the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s most important Arab client. 

Rice appeared shocked. She declared the United States “outraged” that Russia and China had “utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.” She dismissed Russian and Chinese explanations for their position as “a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”

Yes, but that’s not the half of it. In Russia under Vladimir Putin, who has wielded power since December 1999, Communism has been succeeded not by liberal democracy but by autocracy at home and what might be called neo-Sovietism abroad. Putin believes Russia has a right to again be a “great power” and that most Russians support that goal.

This has been apparent for some time. In Robert Kagan’s brief but insightful 2008 book, The Return of History, the author concluded that “great power nationalism has returned to Russia and with it traditional power calculations and ambitions.”