These days in Washington and on the campaign trail Russia and Iran compete for the title of the greatest foreign policy challenge facing America.
Many have assumed that Russia can help solve the Iran problem, but few have considered that the reverse is also true. Iran is important to Russia's game plan and how Moscow weighs its options going forward. That makes talking to Iran an essential part of America's plans for containing Russia.
For Russia, an isolated Iran in conflict with the West is a boon. With Iran's rich gas reserves off limits, Russia can hold Europe hostage and divide NATO while also creating linkage between its support for international pressure on Iran and Western response to its aggression in the Caucasus.
Washington cannot resist a Russian sphere of influence stretching from the Black Sea to Aral Mountains unless it plays the Iran card to its advantage. That means dropping its objection to the flow of Iranian gas to Europe, and engaging Iran in talks on security and stability of the Caucasus.
During a recent visit to Georgia, Vice President Richard Cheney supported building Western-backed pipelines to supply Europe with natural gas. Without tapping into Russian or Iranian reserves, there is not enough gas in the region to make these pipelines viable.
Until Russia attacked Georgia this summer, Washington was concerned only with excluding Iran from the pipeline deals. Now that Washington is getting serious about confronting Russia, it has to put freeing Europe of Russia's clutches above punishing Iran for its nuclear program. America will have to accept building the new pipelines on the back of Iranian gas.
That will be a game-changer and Russia knows it. When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Iran a year ago, Western capitals expected him to deliver a tough message to his hosts on the nuclear issue. But Mr. Putin was in Tehran for a different purpose. He offered support against American pressure in exchange for Iran staying away from the two Western-backed pipelines.
Not long after Mr. Putin's visit, the Russian energy giant Gazprom pledged $200 million for building a new Iran-Armenia pipeline as the Iranian press hinted that Tehran was considering taking shelter under a Russian security umbrella by putting Russian bases on Iranian soil.
But since Russia overturned the apple cart in Georgia, the Iranian calculation has changed. Tehran has much to worry about an expansionist Russia stirring ethnic conflict and settling territorial disputes by force. Iran has been resisting Russian claims to a greater share of the Caspian Sea and, furthermore, fears ethnic troubles spilling over its border with the Caucasus.
For many Iranians, separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia is also a troubling reminder of how Joseph Stalin tried to do the same with two Iranian provinces in 1946.
This provides the United States with an opportunity. Washington has already understood Iran's importance to achieving American goals in Afghanistan and Iraq. It engaged Tehran over Afghanistan's future in 2001 and over Iraq's security in 2007. The high-stakes game in the Caucasus similarly justifies talking to Iran.
During his recent visit to New York, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran was not happy with the carving up of Georgia and that the independence and territorial integrity of Georgia can be a principle that the U.S. and Iran could agree on. America can start talks with Iran as part of a regional dialogue on common security interests and the promise of energy exports. Only by engaging Iran will America draw a wedge between Moscow and Tehran and weaken Russia's hand.
Talking to Iran is good Russia policy. Barack Obama has been right all along. American foreign policy will successfully deal with the world's complex tangle of challenges when it takes diplomacy seriously. And nowhere will the far-reaching impact of diplomacy be more evident than in sorting out the twin challenges of Russia and Iran.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.