Who leaked Barack Obama’s personal letter to Russian president Dmitri Medvedev? Yesterday’s New York Times story on the letter, which suggested that Russia’s help in stopping an Iranian nuclear bomb could lead to the cancellation of a planned U.S. antimissile system in Eastern Europe, didn’t explain why someone is taking private diplomacy public. The key clue seems to be that the letter’s contents were first reported by the Russian newspaper Kommersant. That led several Russia experts with whom I spoke to speculate that the leak had come from the Russians. “I think they’re trying to generate momentum for the idea that the U.S. would not proceed on missile defense [under Obama],” says James Goldgeier, a Russia scholar at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
If so, was the leak really necessary? Obama is already known as a missile defense skeptic, and the passage about the missile system--the letter was broad, covering many areas of joint U.S.-Russian interest--did not articulate any secret new U.S. policy. To the contrary, Obama officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Undersecretary of State William Burns, have publicly said that the missile system was not a defense against Russia and would lose its strategic purpose if Iran ceased to be a threat. While James Collins, U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, admits that the letter “isn’t new,” he adds that its coming directly from Obama means that “it’s authoritative. I wouldn’t minimize that.”
More significant is the larger picture coming into view of the Obama team’s seriousness about addressing Iran’s nuclear program. Obama will badly need the help of the Russians, who have strong political and economic ties to Iran, if he’s going to block Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons ambitions. Cliff Kupchan, a Russia specialist at the Eurasia Group, noted that when Vladimir Putin visited Iran, he met directly with the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. “That is very rare for a non-Muslim leader,” he says. “Any solution to the Iran standoff leads through Moscow.”
That’s a major reason why the Obama team wants, as Joe Biden recently put it, to “press the reset button” on the Washington-Moscow relationship. Obama’s approach over the missile system may not entail a major shift in substance from George Bush’s policy. But it adopts a new tone. “The emphasis is on them helping to find a solution, rather than us not proceeding on things that tick them off,” Says Goldgeier.
The new approach is just one sign that the U.S. and its European allies are getting ready to turn up the international pressure on Iran. “In my view what we’re after here is more fulsome sanctions,” says Kupchan. As it happens, last week the Financial Times was leaked a list of proposed new sanctions against Iran by France, Germany, and Britain.
But whether the Russians will sign onto harsh new sanctions, as they must if the sanctions are to win United Nations approval, is an open question. “They don’t believe the sanctions route is going to work, and they just have never supported turning the screws as the answer,” says Collins. Rather, with the proposal outlined in the leaked letter, the White House might be aiming for other Russian concessions that will make the U.S. approach to Iran easier. One of them would be a Russian agreement to halt the sale of S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Tehran--missiles that would make it easier for Iran to shoot down U.S. or Israeli bombers swooping over their nuclear sites. That process may already be underway: In mid-February, the Russians froze their planned delivery of the missiles pending further dialogue with Obama. This matters because the more vulnerable the Iranians feel to airstrikes, the more likely they are to make a deal.
Obama has a long way to go in making Russia part of the Iran solution. But Moscow’s receptiveness to his letter is a promising first step.“I think it’s rather clever policy by Obama,” concludes Kupchan. “From everything he’s said, he has limited confidence that missile defense works, or will [work] in the near future. And he also knows that the Russians are terrified of the U.S. ballistic missile defense capability. So it makes sense to see in a realistic, hard-nosed way what we can get for it.”
And as for that leak? “Normally if a president sends a letter to another president he doesn’t want to read about it in The New York Times,” says Goldgeier. “If, as we suspect, the Russians leaked, will that have any impact on dealings between the two presidents?” If so, we may find out next month, when Obama and Medvedev meet at the G20 summit in London. Don’t expect them to pass many notes.
Michael Crowley is a senior editor of The New Republic.