France, Russia and Iran

Two noteworthy outcomes of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Paris: Russia and France confirmed previous reports that the sale of a Mistral-class vessel now involves four ships, with negotiations now focused on where they will be built. (France wants at least two of the vessels built in its shipyards, and specified that it will deliver them without weapons systems.) And as if by coincidence, Medvedev flirted even further with the idea of new sanctions against Iran.

There are three things to keep in mind here. First, despite the bad messaging the sale of the Mistral sends to Eastern Europe, the ship itself is not going to determine Russia’s ability to intimidate its naighbors, especially not in the near-term. Second, despite Washington’s mild expressions of opposition, it’s very possible the sale has been greenlighted as part of the bargaining over the Iran sanctions.

Third, and this is most salient to the Iran issue, Russia will continue to flirt with approving sanctions because for now, it hardly matters what Moscow implies or suggests. The U.S. has its hands full getting Brazil and Turkey on board. Although as rotating non-permanent UNSC members, neither has a veto, their votes against sanctions would greatly undermine the credibility of any resolution by creating the kind of West vs. the Rest image that the Obama administration would like to avoid these days. So look for a lot of flexibility in the Russian line over the next few weeks, depending on how Washington’s efforts go in Brasilia and Ankara.

On a more fundamental level, though, the deals emerging from Medvedev’s Paris visit reinforce French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s efforts to “normalize” closer ties with Russia. There are a lot of moving parts here, but it in part reflects Sarkozy’s conviction that on Iran and other issues, Russia is a potentially more reliable partner than the U.S. is willing to concede.

While the France-Russia deals are sure to draw fire, they also reflect Sarkozy’s calculations of where the nexus of geopolitical interests lies, and by all indications, his priority is Iran. What’s interesting is the way in which Sarkozy reversed the poles of the engagement-reset approach that the Obama administration pursued: While President Barack Obama was trying to engage with Iran and reset with Russia, Sarkozy was trying to engage with Russia and reset with Iran (the fuel swap deal). And while I’m not convinced he was right, I’m not convinced he was necessarily wrong, either.