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Are the Russians Coming Around?

A qualification of a qualification.

10:30 AM, Jul 13, 2010 • By GABRIEL SCHOENFELD
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Strong Russian Remarks on Iran Please Washington” is the headline of a Reuters report on Russian President Dmitry Medevev’s latest assessment of Iran’s nuclear program.

“'Iran nearing nuclear bombs' Russia warns,” announces the BBC. 

Has there been a shift in Moscow’s position? Up to now, the Kremlin has strenuously downplayed the scope and pace of Iran’s nuclear program, while simultaneously exporting nuclear expertise and materiel to the Islamic Republic. 

It is therefore worth looking carefully at the Russian leader’s precise words: “It is obvious,” said Medvedev to a group of Russian ambassadors, “that Iran is moving closer to possessing the potential which in principle could be used for the creation of nuclear weapons.”

“Possessing the potential which in principle” is a qualification of a qualification. This could indeed be progress—if we measure progress from a very low baseline. But it also could be Russian catnip used to build up political capital and extract concessions from the Obama administration in whatever new negotiations come along.

If so, the Obama administration is gladly playing along, heralding Medvedev’s remarks as a kind of breakthrough and an implicit demonstration that its “reset” policy is yielding results. Reuters quotes an unnamed Obama administration official:

This is about as blunt as Medvedev has ever been about Iran’s nuclear program and should be taken as a good sign of increased international unity on Iran’s nuclear program.

“Words must mean something,” Barack Obama said memorably in Prague last year. But what exactly do Medvedev’s words mean, and what deeds will follow? The answer may be much less “obvious” than meets the eye.

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