The Russian pundits have rightly estimated that Iran and Cuba are the two “presidential legacies” in the foreign-policy arena that the U.S. President Barack Obama hopes to garner before his term in the White House ends in January 2018.

The Cuba-US normalization has acquired a dynamic of its own and Russia’s capacity to influence it is very negligible. But that is not the case with the Iran issue. Which makes the “Iran question” extremely intriguing, as the US-Russia “thaw” deepens.

Obama needs Russia’s cooperation both in negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran that includes iron-clad guarantee of Tehran not violating the terms of the deal in future, and, secondly, in ensuring that the harsh sanctions regime against Iran remains in place until the deal is conclusively through and the sanctions are formally lifted on the basis of a resolution by the United Nations Security Council resolution.

Suffice it to say, unlike with the “Cuba legacy”, Obama cannot wrap up his “Iran legacy” without the imprimatur of the United Nations Security Council, where, of course, Russia’s cooperation becomes vital. Russia has a capacity to play the spoiler’s role and frustrate Obama’s ambition to garner an “Iran legacy”.

Thus, the Russian ambivalence in supplying the S-300 missiles to Iran has given sleepless nights to the Americans, since such a move would have torn asunder the sanctions regime. All that the Obama administration has been seeking from Moscow was not to beef up Iran’s military capabilities at this very delicate juncture that might only encourage Tehran to negotiate on the nuclear deal from a position of strength.

An exclusive dispatch by the Associated Press news agency quoting diplomats in Vienna on Tuesday suggests that Moscow is also bargaining with the Obama administration on the Iran nuclear deal. Simply put, Washington wants a nuclear deal with Iran with a provision for “snap-back” sanctions specifically included in a future UN Security Council resolution authorizing the lifting of the sanctions – that is, Washington expects that the present sanctions regime would be reimposed automatically in future in the event of Tehran violating the terms of the deal.

However, Russia balked, insisting that there cannot be an automatic “snap-back” and that a fresh UN SC vote will be required. But the AP report claims that a via media has been found. Prime facie, Obama will agree to Moscow’s “pre-condition” regarding the UN SC vote, but in turn, Moscow will quietly agree that a majority of support in the UN SC will be enough to have the resolution through and not a mandatory consensus – that is, Russia may simply abstain but will not veto any resolution providing for automatic re-imposition of the sanctions regime against Iran in future. (Associated Press)

No doubt, this is diplomatic ingenuity at its best. Again, Moscow sticks to its principles, while also accommodating Obama’s wish (and at no cost to itself) — by simply agreeing not to be a dog in the manger and to allow the Americans a free hand to finger Tehran if the Iranians ever got too big for its boots.

What remains unclear is what a grateful Obama would have offered to Moscow as quid pro quo for its valuable cooperation at a difficult moment when the Iran deal is nearing closure.

Conceivably, Iran will be unhappy that this is how a polycentric world order might actually work on the ground  – so unlike the rosy picture of it they would have had. But beggars can’t be choosers. When the Americans and the Russians strike a Faustian deal, the Iranians have to learn to live with it.

Besides, Iran simply cannot alienate Russia. Iran needs to work closely with Russia on other fronts that are core issues for its national security – Syria, Yemen, Iraq and so on – where too the predatory skills of American diplomacy are actively at work to encourage Moscow to be pragmatic at the UN Security Council in the coming period.

Having said that, the Iranians are not at the end of the road, either. Life moves on. They too are past masters in pragmatism and they have the ingenuity to beat the Russians at their own game by having some day their own very special romance with Obama in the downstream of a nuclear deal when a US-Iranian relationship is all set to take off. For the present, though, in the idiom of the sport of tennis, It’s “Advantage Obama.”

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M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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