Iran and Russia: is the honeymoon over?

The souring of Iran's key relationship with Russia is a crucial factor behind its decision to build ten nuclear sites, in defiance of the UN Security Council. Hossein Asgarian reports from Teheran on the way Russia has reneged on a raft of earlier commitments.
Hossein Asgarian
30 November 2009

Russia has recently been demonstrating a clear U-turn in its position on Iran.

President Dmitry Medvedev, who took part in the summit meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) on November 15, announced, in a joint statement with his American counterpart Barak Obama, that if Iran did not give clear answers to their questions about its nuclear programme, Russia and the United States might consider other options than negotiation. Both sides noted that they were unhappy with the speed at which the Iranian nuclear program was progressing and maintained that time was running out for Iran.

A day later, Russia’s Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko announced that, due to technical problems, the Bushehr nuclear power plant would not be launched, as previously declared, at the end of 2009. Over the past 10 years Russia has, for various reasons including technical and financial, postponed the inauguration of the power plant. According to the original contract between Iran and Russia, Bushehr  was supposed to go onstream in July 1999.

Recent developments have apparently focused the minds of Iran’s elite, and public opinion too, on Russian policies toward Iran. Relations between Tehran and Moscow have been friendly in the past few years. Russia considers Iran to be one of the main customers of its nuclear industry and weapons. Iran’s strategic position is also of considerable interest to Russia since Iran, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, is not an ally of the West. So Russia has always tried to keep Iran on its side. It has opposed sanctions against the country and high-ranking Iranian officials have come to trust Moscow. Of course, some analysts maintain that Iran has no choice but to cooperate with Russia and China, as it lacks any other ally among big powers and has always tried to take advantage of Russia’s differences with other countries.

Some Iranian analysts have noted in recent months that Russia has kept on using Iran as a trump card in dealing with Western countries. However, Russia has always given priority to the West in its foreign relations and whenever needed, it has not hesitated to sacrifice Iran’s national interests for its own. So they try to extort as many concessions as possible out of Iran over its nuclear programme, while using their support for Iran as a bargain chip with the Western powers. However, if the cost of supporting Iran becomes too high at any time, if it pitches them against Europe and the other Western powers, they invariably forsake Iran and take sides with the international community.

These analysts mention Russia’s approval of three sanctions resolutions passed against Iran by the United Nations Security Council and its agreement to transfer Iran’s nuclear case from the International Atomic Energy Agency to the Security Council as evidence to support their viewpoint. They then propose that Iran should review its relations with other countries and establish more friendly ties with world powers.

Russia’s recent behaviour offers further evidence to back up this view. The analysts point out thatRussia has not been cooperating with Iran over determining legalities for the exploitation of oil and gas in the Caspian Sea. Instead, they have been concluding bilateral agreements with other Caspian Sea states, and they refused to invite Iran to participate in this year’s summitof Caspian littoral states in Kazakhstan. They have also not implemented agreements between the two countries for technical and military cooperation, in particular  for the delivery ofS-300 missile systems to Iran. This was apparentlyagreed primarily in 2005 and its implementation was put on the agenda in 2007. Iranian officials are now maintaining that as of November Russia has announced a further six-month delay in the delivery of the missile system.

In recent days, a number of Iranian top ranking officials including the Minister of Defence, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Majlis deputies have lashed at Russia for its behaviour, particularly its unacceptable and non- technical excuses and its weak stance towards US and Israel’spressures. They warned Moscow that it ran the riskof losing the confidence of Iranian public opinion.

These developments suggest that bilateral relations between Iran and Russia are entering a new phase, which makes their future trajectory very hard to predict.

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