On Syria and Iran, U.S. and Russia Can Work Together

Editor’s note: In this
Foreign Policy
magazine article, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov argue that U.S.-Russian cooperation on eliminating chemical weapons in Syria and ending Iran’s nuclear weapons program could provide a basis for improving the bilateral relationship between Washington and Moscow. This op-ed stemmed from an October 4 discussion in Washington of the Albright-Ivanov Track II dialogue hosted by Brookings President Strobe Talbott. The dialogue, launched in 2009, focuses on nuclear arms control issues but also touches on other key U.S.-Russia questions, and has produced several joint memoranda to senior U.S. and Russian leaders. The dialogue is co-organized by the Brookings Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative.

More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, it is striking that areas of disagreement appear to outweigh areas of agreement between Moscow and Washington. Clearly, each side has grievances. Many in the United States object to Russia’s behavior in the post-Soviet space, such as Moscow’s prodding of neighboring states to join the Russian-led Customs Union, and how the Kremlin deals with its domestic issues. Many in Russia, on the other hand, contest the legitimacy of American intervention, sometimes with military force, in what Moscow sees as other countries’ internal affairs.

But Russians and Americans often overlook areas where progress has been made. In the last five years, our countries have cooperated on reducing nuclear arms, countering terrorism, combatting nuclear proliferation, and stabilizing Afghanistan. Still, the recent history of the “reset” demonstrates that, unless we increase significantly the depth of our cooperation, any progress in the bilateral relationship will remain fragile and reversible. Not only is coordination between Moscow and Washington critical to solving some of the world’s most intractable problems, but the very act of working together on these issues is an important tool for generating the trust and understanding that is still lacking on both sides.

Here are two immediate opportunities.

First, the United States and Russia now find themselves working together to achieve the elimination of chemical weapons in Syria. The two countries have every interest in ensuring the success of this endeavor. If it succeeds, chemical weapons will be removed as a factor in the Syrian conflict, as will the risk of terrorist groups acquiring those weapons. Progress on chemical weapons might spur momentum toward the elusive goal of a Geneva II conference that could tackle the challenging task of sorting out a broader political solution to end the carnage.

Failure, on the other hand, would put Moscow and Washington back at loggerheads, supporting opposing sides of the conflict and lacking a joint objective. It would be perceived as our common failure, no matter how it came about.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has made a good start with the destruction of chemical weapons production equipment in Syria. Eliminating the chemical weapons stocks, however, requires more from the United States and Russia than just diplomatic muscle. The effort needs assistance on the ground either to eliminate the chemical weapons stocks in place or prepare them for shipment out of Syria for elimination elsewhere. Much expertise resides in the United States and Russia, and our militaries each have unique capabilities that might assist in the elimination of these weapons. NATO countries also have capabilities in this area. Norway, for example, has offeredto help with chemical weapons removal. Washington and Moscow might consider how NATO countries and Russia could cooperate to assist the OPCW and the U.N. mission in eliminating Syria’s weapons of mass destruction.

The second opportunity arises in Iran. While the Nov. 7-9 meetings of the P5+1 with Iran did not come to closure, Tehran may be prepared to make the sorts of concessions on its nuclear program required to give the outside world assurance that it does not seek a nuclear weapon. We should know more about this shortly as the P5+1 and Iran reconvene in Geneva.

Russia and the United States agree that Iran should not develop a nuclear weapons capability. The initial step of the P5+1 proposal not only halts specific aspects of Iran’s nuclear program but also, for the first time in nearly a decade, brings greater transparency into its nuclear activities while a longer-term solution is negotiated. Any final settlement should leave the international community confident that, in case of any reversal, there will be time to act in advance. A strategy for securing this kind of successful outcome with Iran should also top the U.S.-Russian agenda.

With a positive track record on Syria and Iran, our two countries will be in a much better position to reconcile their differences on issues such as missile defense, new steps in nuclear arms reductions, and other regional crises.

Syria and Iran each pose vexing challenges for the international community. Washington and Moscow cannot solve them alone, but they should jointly lead the broader effort to maximize the chances for success in both cases. That would be good for the Middle East, and a joint success or two just might inject needed momentum for a more positive bilateral relationship based on mutual trust and long-term strategic interests.

The Syria crisis might have taken a very different course if not for a series of conversations between our countries’ two presidents over the past year. Those conversations created the basis for cooperation on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons stocks, despite the postponement of the planned September summit and the fall-out from the Snowden affair. We urge Presidents Obama and Putin to seize the opportunity created by their joint initiative on Syrian chemical weapons and the prospect of resolving the Iran nuclear problem to resume regular summit-level meetings and to map out an ambitious yet realistic agenda for both countries.