In New START Debate, Administration Subtly Plays the Iran Card

The administration is having a heap of trouble pushing its Russia arms-reduction treaty through the Senate before year's end, and it's an uncomfortable position in which President Obama now finds himself, thanks to these difficulties: Just rebuked, more or less, in a midterm referendum on the economy, the president is being stymied by the lead Republican negotiator, Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who has said he doesn't think the New START treaty can be ratified by the end of Congress's lame-duck session.

Obama will lose face internationally if it doesn't get done by the end of the year, observers have suggested, translating a perceived post-midterm domestic weakness into consequent weakness on the international stage. At a recent NATO meeting, Germany and other Eastern European countries expressed a desire to get the START deal sealed. As a senior administration official described it on a background briefing to reporters aboard Air Force One, it sounded like semi-impatient fidgeting by U.S. allies.

Republican hesitation, educated minds have surmised, amounts to no more than political recalcitrance, and what must frustrate the administration is that there seems to be little reason for Kyl and other Republicans to play ball. As National Journal's George E. Condon, Jr. points out, Republicans face sparse political pressure to ratify New START this year. The public is concerned about jobs and the economy; there is no outcry over GOP refusal to ratify; whether Kyl's requests are reasonable is not an occupying thought in too many minds.

To remedy this incentive structure, the administration has embarked on a public campaign for START, subtly making its point with a hot-button issue: Iran.

The connection between START and Iran rests on this truth: U.S./Russian relations have improved in the Obama era, and with that progress have come deliverable advances in keeping Iran's nuclear program at bay. Russia sided with the U.S. in supporting sanctions on Iran, and President Dmitry Medvedev canceled a contract to sell missiles to Iran. Having opposed a missile defense system in Eastern Europe (which is seen as a bulwark against Iranian nukes), Russia now is cooperating with NATO states. Persuading Russia to do these things was seen as a key to ratcheting up pressure on Iran, and, by building a better rapport with Russia, the administration succeeded.

The administration has made the case, several times this month, that the New START treaty is a key to maintaining good relations with Russia, and that, after winning such significant victories on Iran policy, it's important that President Obama can show Medvedev that he's able to hold up his end of the bargain.

In an op-ed published Friday in The Wall Street Journal, Vice President Biden touched on the Iran argument:

New Start is also a cornerstone of our efforts to reset relations with Russia, which have improved significantly in the last two years. This has led to real benefits for U.S. and global security. Russian cooperation made it possible to secure strong sanctions against Iran over its nuclear ambitions, and Russia canceled a sale to Iran of an advanced anti-aircraft missile system that would have been dangerously destabilizing.

At a press conference this past Sunday, President Obama was asked whether Kyl's resistance is purely political. After describing his talks with Kyl, Obama brought up Iran:

...there's another element to this.  We've instituted Iran sanctions.  Thanks to the work of the EU, thanks to the work of Russia, thanks to the work of some of our other partners, these are the strongest sanctions we've ever implemented.  But we have to maintain sustained pressure as Iran makes a calculation about whether it should return to negotiations on its nuclear program. This is the wrong time for us to be sending a message that there are divisions between the P5-plus-1, that there's uncertainty.

And in that background briefing on the same day, that senior administration official made the same case, telling reporters:

In order for the President to be able to do that and to have that credibility that he can deliver, he has to be able to deliver on his commitments too.  And I think it's important to remember, on the Iran part in particular, that was something that we pressed the Russians to do, right?  We don't have billions of dollars of trade in arms with Iran -- the Russians do.  It was much more costly to them, both financially and to their geopolitical position in the Middle East, to put those sanctions in place.  President Medvedev has been very blunt about that in his conversations with President Obama.
President Medvedev then went the extra mile and unilaterally cancelled the S-300 contract.  And I want to just be very clear about that -- that would have been a highly destabilizing event for those S-300s to be transferred to Iran.  Medvedev has delivered on this.  And in order to continue this relationship, we have to be able to deliver on the things that the President has said.

The administration is not making this Iran argument gaudily, by any means, and it's perhaps worth noting that it could do so if it felt stylistically inclined.

In pressing for START's ratification, Iran is not one of the first things that Obama, Biden, or other administration officials talk about. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates didn't mention Iran in the Washington Post op-ed they coauthored Nov. 15. Their main point was that inspections of Russian nuclear arms ceased a year ago without a new treaty. Biden's main point was missile defense.

Iranian nukes elicit fear and emotion from the public. Making the Iran case more prominently would make START a more pressing issue in the public's mind, but the administration has avoided demagoguing the point.

But it is making the point nonetheless. Asked why START must be ratified now, as opposed to in a month or two, the administration's answer is that 1) we need inspections to resume, and 2) we have to show Russia that Obama can hold up his end of the holistic bargain of the White House's attempts to "reset" relations with Russia in the last two years.

In arguing the latter point, that START must be ratified to show that Obama can deliver, the administration has made Iran a part of its case for urgency.