Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov  commented on recent “signals sent by the U.S. administration” and stated clearly that removing concerns over Iran’s nuclear program could lead to “more profound talks on cooperation on missile defense.” Ryabkov added that Russia has shown no signs that it will toughen its position on Iran at the current time, but that diplomatic efforts should be stepped up in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue.

The signals that Ryabkov was referring to is as we suggested; the idea of linking U.S.-Russian negotiations on U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans in Central Europe to the Iranian nuclear issue. Thus it is clear now that  the U.S. administration has basically been signaling to Moscow that if Russia does its part to cooperate with the United States in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the United States will be open to addressing Russian concerns over its plans to install BMD facilities in Europe.

And on Feb. 13  Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by RIA Novosti news agency as saying that transit via Russia of nonmilitary cargo for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan could start within days.

Russia is hinting that it could throw Iran under the bus, but is waiting to see what kind of a deal Clinton offers when she meets with Lavrov in Geneva. Russia has a big list of demands for the United States that includes everything from BMD to NATO expansion in Eastern Europe to the renegotiation of nuclear arms treaties. The United States, meanwhile, needs Russian cooperation to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan via an alternate route and to pressure Iran into curbing its nuclear program. This is where the BMD connection comes in: The U.S. BMD plan for Europe is designed primarily to thwart an intercontinental ballistic missile attack from Iran. If the Iranian nuclear threat could be eliminated with Russian help, then the U.S. argument for BMD in Europe dissolves, giving Russia the breathing space it has been bargaining for.

While the Poles, the Czechs and the Baltic states — all of whom have been counting on the BMD plan to shield them from Russia — are watching with fear as these statements emanate from Washington and Moscow, the Iranians should be feeling especially paranoid right now. There is no love lost between Russia and Iran. The Iranians still remember the brief Soviet occupation of northern Iran during World War II, and know that the current Russian interest in Tehran is born out of Moscow’s tactical desire to capture the United States’ attention on strategic issues such as BMD. So, whenever Russia feels the need to perk Washington’s ears up, it throws out vague threats to supply Iran with the S-300 air defense system or complete the never-ending Bushehr nuclear facility. Though Iran knows that nine times out of 10 its support from its Russian allies is more rhetorical than material, it relies on Moscow’s backing to boost its own leverage to use against the West, particularly on issues concerning its nuclear program and Iraq. At the same time, Russia is well aware of all the talk about the United States and Iran patching up their differences and engaging in public diplomatic talks. From Moscow’s point of view, it could only be a matter of time before Iran starts shifting toward the West, so the Kremlin might as well derive all the tactical utility out of its relationship with Tehran while it still can.

A visit by Iran’s defense minister to Moscow on Monday gave Russia and Iran another chance to highlight their relationship and thumb their noses at Washington with ambiguous talk of greater missile cooperation, but Iran may not be able to count on the Russians for much longer. At the end of the day, Moscow’s core concerns revolve around protecting Russian influence in the former Soviet periphery so that it can survive in the long term as a regional power. That means doing whatever it takes to ensure that EU enlargement and BMD plans for Europe are scrapped so it doesn’t have to worry about having American troops within a few miles of its borders. If Russia must sacrifice its relatively superficial relationship with Iran to make that happen, Iran could soon be left without a great power backer.

The Iranians still have presidential elections to get through in June and have yet to decide exactly which direction they wish to steer their negotiations with the United States, but Tehran could really use the support of an ally like Russia if and when it chooses to engage with Washington over the future of Iraq. There are a number of issues it still has to discuss with the United States; Iran wants guarantees of influence in Iraq and the wider region and wants security assurances that Iraq’s U.S.-backed military force will not become a problem for Iran down the road. At the same time, Iran is hoping it can get through these negotiations without having to concede a great deal over its nuclear program. A withdrawal of Russian support — no matter how symbolic that support might be — will deflate Tehran’s negotiating position and either coerce a lonely Iran into dealing with the United States or give Iran more reason to stall until it can find some way to reboot, perhaps through the use of its widespread militant proxies. In any case, this appears to be a gamble that Washington is willing to take while it forges ahead in dealing with the Russians.

Originally introduced during the Reagan administration under the moniker of “Star Wars,” BMD is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in flight. It is an ambitious technology, often compared to shooting a bullet with another bullet when the gunmen are far enough apart that they cannot even see one another. Its cost reflects that ambition: More than $100 billion has been spent on BMD by the United States alone since the Reagan era. The program’s supporters, however, prefer to compare the price tag to what it would cost to recover from a successful strike by a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

Countries such as Israel and Japan, who share Washington’s concerns about ballistic missiles, have become avid partners of the Pentagon in BMD development. A number of other countries, however, take a dim view of U.S. BMD aspirations. For the countries against which these systems are deployed, the concern is obvious: Iran and North Korea are not particularly fond of seeing years of painstaking missile development made obsolete by the Americans. But there are others who stand to lose even more.

Russia in particular is not amused. The proposed U.S. BMD systems in Poland and the Czech Republic are meant to protect the continental United States against missiles launched from the Middle East, not from Russia, but are unnerving for Moscow nonetheless. For Russia, these systems pose a double threat. First, such installations require military personnel to operate them, which would put American boots on the ground in a region of vital interest to Moscow. (Incidentally, this is the same reason the Poles and Czechs are so eager to see the systems go forward.) Second, building these systems would give the United States additional experience that would be useful in one day developing a system that could actually begin to erode the effectiveness of the Russian nuclear deterrent.

As such, the ongoing U.S. plans for BMD facilities in Europe are perhaps the biggest roadblock to a U.S.-Russian deal on pretty much anything. At the moment, however, Washington needs Moscow’s help.

As we have suggested, the problem is Afghanistan. The new U.S. administration has committed itself to escalating the war in the landlocked country — but its supply lines, which run primarily through Pakistan, are becoming less and less secure. The United States needs a new supply route, and that route must go either through Iran or through Russia’s backyard in Central Asia and the Caucasus. Both routes would effectively require Russian acquiescence. No Central Asian government would be willing to cut a separate deal with Washington without Russian assent, given Moscow’s power and proximity, and Russia has the power to complicate any U.S.-Iranian negotiations on a potential supply route by offering Tehran advanced military and nuclear technologies that, if delivered, would shift the U.S.-Iranian power balance.

This creates a situation in which the U.S. commitment to BMD installations in Europe is ripe for reconsideration. For the Americans, stepping back from BMD could actually induce the Russians to pressure Tehran into making concessions. For the Iranians, the U.S. drawdown in Iraq coupled with limitations on BMD would help make more palatable a possible public deal with the “Great Satan” that could end Iran’s pariah status. Meanwhile, if Iran convincingly abandons its nuclear weapons efforts, and if Washington reciprocates by abandoning its Central European BMD efforts, then the biggest monkey wrench in the American-Russian dialogue would disappear.

Of course, this calculation does not take into account the complication of North Korean-Iranian cooperation in missile development, or Iran’s recent satellite launch. The Iranian Shahab-3 and North Korean Nodong, for example, are essentially the same missile. Given the similarities between satellite launch technology and ICBM technology, these countries’ larger satellite launch vehicles — the Iranian Safir Omid and the North Korean Taepodong series — are already thought to translate to a crude ICBM with an estimated 3,750-mile range, and they begin to make ranges on the order of 5,500 miles potentially obtainable. This might make U.S. planners think twice about abandoning BMD in exchange for political concessions from Russia and Iran.

BMD is not a single technology, however. A full-fledged national missile defense shield would have multiple layers with multiple technologies — many still only in the development phase. At the moment, the United States fields three operational BMD technologies.

The only U.S. BMD facilities under serious dispute are the Central European GMD locations. And the controversy is rooted not in Russian discomfort with BMD per se, but in Moscow’s concerns over U.S. military encroachment on the Russian periphery — especially in Poland. The Alaskan GMD interceptors, emplaced years ago during a time of Russian weakness when there was little Moscow could do to resist, have more (though still limited) relevance to the deliverability of the Russian deterrent than do the Central European sites. Most Russian ICBMs are based in the western part of the country and would have to travel over Greenland and the North Pole to reach the United States. It is true that Russia is not happy about GMD interceptors in Alaska, nor about U.S. warships suddenly sporting BMD capabilities. But there is little Russia can do about U.S. BMD efforts on sovereign U.S. territory and on the high seas.

With the Central European BMD sites out of the equation, the United States would still retain other BMD options and could continue development, something Russia cannot and has not attempted to halt; the Russians would keep American boots out of Poland; and even Iran could interpret a bit of a win. Meanwhile, the states that lose the most if Washington backs off from BMD are those that used to fall under Soviet sway, but are now new or aspiring members of Western institutions. The most vulnerable of these are Poland, Georgia and the Baltic states, but they are not alone.

Other issues would still need to come into play, of course. Russia likely would still insist on renegotiating some core post-Cold War treaties in order to cling to some semblance of American-Russian strategic parity in weapons systems, while Iran would want guarantees of influence in Iraq and the wider Middle East. But all in all, having Washington step back from BMD in Central Europe seems almost too neat of a solution.

The pickle is the issue of U.S.-Russian strategic parity. Russia’s conventional military is still in relatively poor shape, and expansion of operational capabilities and effectiveness will continue to progress slowly over the years. Until then, Russia’s only reliable defense strategy is its nuclear deterrent.

The 21st century thus far has seen the U.S. military bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan without the spare capacity to respond on the ground to Russian aggression — as was made clear by Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. This window of opportunity for Russian maneuvering is gradually closing, however, and Moscow has only a limited amount of time to lock down control over its periphery before Washington has a dozen brigade combat teams without a scheduled deployment.

For Moscow, the fight over Central European BMD is about evicting the United States — and having the rest of the states on Russia’s periphery see Moscow as the power behind the eviction. At the core, it is a move to establish an understanding about U.S. respect for Russia’s sphere of influence.

If Moscow can secure both its periphery and a strategic arms treaty with Washington, U.S.-Russian strategic parity would be re-established (at least on paper), and Russia would once again have some semblance of a geographic buffer in Europe. This is critical because, in the years to come, as the United States withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington will actually have the troops available to deploy to places like the Baltics, Poland or Georgia. Russia wants a firm agreement on U.S. respect for a Russian sphere of influence in order to prevent that from happening.

Now that the U.S. administration is starting to talk publicly about potentially revising its BMD plans, the Russians are cautiously reciprocating. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by RIA Novosti news agency on Feb. 13 as saying that transit via Russia of nonmilitary cargo for U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan could start within days. Evidently, negotiations are moving. It still remains to be seen, however, whether the United States is willing to meet Russia’s other demands — particularly regarding NATO expansion for Georgia and Ukraine — in return for transit to Afghanistan and potential cooperation over Iran. An upcoming NATO summit in Poland likely will reveal just how far Washington is willing to go.

Conclusion: While the Russians have thrown out a number of vague offers for the United States to transit its territory and have encouraged certain Central Asian states to do the same, they are intentionally keeping these offers vague. Before any substantial cooperation from Russia can be expected, Moscow first wants to see the United States address its core demands on reversing U.S. ballistic missile defense plans in Europe, halting NATO expansion offers to Georgia and Ukraine and renegotiating Cold War-era nuclear arms treaties. There appears to have been some progress in back-channel talks between Moscow and Washington, Russia will continue to withhold its full cooperation until the United States brings a comprehensive deal to the table. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Moscow on March 3 will be a major indicator of which direction these talks go, but these negotiations take time, which is not a luxury the U.S. military can afford in Afghanistan.