Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Moscow calling ... Tehran too

As President Obama and First Lady Michelle arrive in London for the G-20 summit, there are some rumblings that suggest that something of substance may actually be accomplished at the summit or one of its satellite events. Who to thank for this burst of pre-optimism? Russia, which is represented at the economic parley, and Iran, which isn’t.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be officially down with Russian state media, but the head of the Russian Republic isn’t above making adroit use of the Western press when he can. Medvedev did so on Tuesday, when The Washington Post published an op-ed piece Medevdev wrote, and a few days after the Russian leader did a formal sitdown with BBC.

Both appear to be Moscow’s most serious and potentially transformative overtures to the United States in some time, extending to Obama the opportunity to discuss several pressing issues, including missile defense in Eastern Europe, Iran, and the Russian relationship with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In his WashPost op-ed, Medevedev adopted a novel metaphor for improving relations with Washington. “[R]emoving … obstacles to good relations would be beneficial to our countries — essentially removing ‘toxic assets’ to make good a negative balance sheet — and beneficial to the world. This will require joint efforts … We are ready for that.”

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And a statement today from deputy Iranian foreign minister Mohamed Mehdi, holds out another new hope. Speaking from the Afghanistan Conference in The Hague, Mehdi said Tehran would be receptive to dialogue on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and working to combat drug trafficking (opium is roughly to Afghanistan what marijuana is to California) — all of it a strong suggestion that a thaw is definitely possible in the 30-year chill between Iran and the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered mash notes, calling the Medvedev interview “very forward leaning. A lot of what he said our president would say.” And Clinton, who extended an invitation to Tehran to attend the conference, went on to respond to the gesture from Iran, saying it was “a promising sign that there will be future cooperation.”

The devil is, of course, in the details. It’s still to be seen how the Iranian minister’s offer for dialogue squares with the hardline attitude of Iran’s theocratic leadership; Mehdi’s offer comes about 10 days after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the true spiritual leader of Iran, gave the United States a tongue-lashing meant to be a response to Obama’s Nowruz holiday overture last month.

And Medvedev’s call for common ground is in stark contrast to the presumptive forecast of the “disintegration” of the United States made by Igor Panarin, a well-regarded Russian scholar and former KGB analyst — a forecast that calls for the collapse of the U.S. a year from this June. Which, you wonder, is the real Russian intent?

But for all that, the G-20 summit is already shaping to be a success for the Obama administration, even before the confab begins. Some of the TV analysts are saying it would be “a feather in his cap” if Obama returns from Europe with some working agreements with old antagonists.

But it would be more than that. To come back from a meeting where little more was expected than photo ops, and have a framework for positive dialogue with Russian and Iran, in addition to expected progress on the economic front would be a powerful legitimization of the new American geopolitical persona, and of President Obama’s place on the world stage.

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