Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Moscow earlier this week, seeking Russian support for tighter sanctions on Iran. And what did she get for his efforts? A few nice photo ops, plus an unambiguous "nyet" from Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov.
I have a couple of questions.
Did she go there believing that she really would get a meaningful commitment for tighter sanctions from the Russians? Or did she know beforehand that she wasn't going to get anywhere, but felt she had to go through the motions anyway?
Frankly, I don't know which answer would worry me more. If it's the former, she's getting very bad advice from her Russia experts, who clearly have no idea how Russia's leaders perceive their own interests. If the latter, she has no business wasting time and effort on a lost cause and giving Lavrov the opportunity to score points by stiffing her in public. The Secretary of State of a great power shouldn't be flying off to foreign capitals with the diplomatic equivalent of a tin cup, pleading with them to comply with our wishes. You're supposed to wait until your assistants have got the deal more-or-less in place, and then you show up to make the final push and iron out the last sticky details. Either way, this just wasn't very smart diplomacy.
And let's not overlook the obvious possibility that Lavrov was right: right now isn't an opportune time to threaten Iran with more sanctions. The initial round of talks were encouraging (though there's still a long way to go), and brandishing threats is probably the best way to derail them before any additional progress is made. There are undoubtedly people in the United States (and Iran) who would like to see that happen, but I didn't think Hillary was one of them.
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Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.