RELATIONS BETWEEN the United States and Russia have hit their lowest point since the Cold War. Just last week , Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of igniting a global arms race and blasted those "who want to dictate their will to all others regardless of international norms and law" -- a comment clearly aimed at the United States. That comes on top of Putin's remarks earlier this spring, in which he appeared to liken the United States to Germany's Third Reich. Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Russia, at times, "seems to think and act in the zero-sum terms of another era."
This growing tension has real and dangerous implications for US security: Washington is struggling to get Russia's help in sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program -- one of the top American defense priorities. If we in the United States want that help, we need to offer something in return.
The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report paints a bleak picture: Iran is making faster progress than expected toward uranium enrichment. And our options are limited. A military attack against Iran not only would fail to stop an Iranian bomb, but it also would add to our difficulties in Iraq and the Muslim world more generally. Clearly, robust UN sanctions against Iran offer the best possible chance of persuading Iran to give up or at least slow down its plan to enrich uranium as part of its nuclear program.
But diplomatic efforts to tighten UN sanctions on Iran's nuclear program can only succeed if Russia agrees not to wield its veto in the Security Council. Russia is torn between its interests in non proliferation, its commercial interests in trade (including equipment for nuclear reactors), and its irritation with the United States.
The latest spark for disagreement between the United States and Russia is the American plan to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The Bush administration argues that the missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic will help counter Iran and do not endanger Russian security. Technically, that is correct. Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have both pointed out that Russian missiles and decoys could easily swamp our defensive systems.
But the Russians see the situation differently, with Putin accusing the United States of "filling Eastern Europe with new weapons." They object to the political symbolism of the US advance into former Soviet satellites, and also worry that someday our technological capabilities can develop the system as a threat to Russia. Our efforts to convince Russia otherwise have been fruitless.
Yet these tensions also create an opportunity. We should offer Russia a grand bargain: We would delay our plans for missile defense in Eastern Europe, while the Russians would agree to back stronger sanctions against Iran.
Since our technology is not fully developed and Iran is not on the brink of having long range missiles that can accommodate nuclear warheads, we could afford to offer Russia a delay in deployment while we engage in broader discussions of our military relationship. At the same time, since an Iranian nuclear weapon will undercut Russian security, and Russia has already offered to provide enrichment services to Iran if the Iranians forgo their own enrichment program, Russia might find the bargain tempting.
Critics might worry that we would give away too much. But we can afford to buy ourselves a little time. It's not likely that Iran could develop missiles capable of reaching Europe or the United States for at least a decade. Therefore, we can take our best shot at blocking Iran's nuclear ambitions without compromising our immediate security.
The United States clearly intends for any missile defense in Eastern Europe to protect against Iran, as well as any other hostile states. But we have the opportunity right now to prevent Iran from getting the nuclear bomb we're trying to defend ourselves against. By striking a deal with Russia to support sanctions against Iran, we would get a chance to make our strongest bid yet to prevent Iran from becoming the newest nuclear state. Everything else should be second to that goal. Although the administration will be reluctant to alter its missile defense plans, Rice often speaks of transformational diplomacy. What better example than for Bush to suggest this bargain to Putin when they meet at Kennebunkport this summer?
Joseph S. Nye Jr., a professor of international relations at Harvard University, is the author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics."