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    Middle East
     Jun 26, 2007
Russia's tango with Tehran
By M K Bhadrakumar

Russia realizes it may have overreached in its trapeze acts in recent months in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf region. It must get its act together. And, like others before, Moscow must start from the basics. That means getting right its equations with Iran, the regional power of growing consequence.

But the Iran it shabbily treated a few months ago is no longer the Iran it is compelled to befriend. The balance of forces has shifted dramatically. It is now up to Iran to respond to Russia's overture.

The tango promises to be absorbing, as it involves two partners who bear striking similarity in their "de-ideologized" and pragmatic mindset with acute "bazaari" instincts.

Russian media reported last Thursday that President Vladimir Putin might visit Tehran before the end of the year. This is a visit that Moscow repeatedly kept postponing in the past two years despite Tehran's obvious keenness - and to Washington's great delight. Putin kept touring most countries neighboring Iran.

Russian visitors to Tehran in recent months would have reported back to Moscow that all is not well in their relations with Iran. When the head of the International Affairs Committee of the Russian Federation Council (upper house of the parliament), Mikhail Margelov, visited Tehran in February, Iranian leaders impressed upon him that a crisis of confidence was developing over the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Iran had contracted with Moscow in 1995 at a cost of US$1 billion. The chairman of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, told Margelov that Tehran was increasingly dissatisfied with the pace of construction.

The project was originally scheduled to be completed in 1999, and it is a well-known secret that the first reactor-core fuel has been ready since late 2004. Iran began to worry when signs appeared that the Russians were foot-dragging on their promise to deliver the nuclear fuel by this March as promised. Bushehr wouldn't become operational in September.

On February 19, the Supreme Leader's adviser on foreign affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, visited Moscow to deliver a message to Putin stressing the importance of commissioning the Bushehr plant. The Speaker of the Iranian Majlis (parliament), Gholam Ali Hadad Adel, warned Moscow on February 21 that any delay in the completion of Bushehr would "harm" Iran-Russia relations.

But Moscow was undeterred. On March 12, it announced that all work in Bushehr would be suspended. Tehran promptly refuted Moscow's contention that a default in payments to the Russia contractor led to the impasse. Indeed, it sounded absurd that Iran wasn't making the paltry payment on such a massive project, or that Russia, which had a $60 billion program to develop its nuclear power industry, was actually strapped for cash.

Clearly, the problem lay elsewhere. Was Moscow doing a bit of horse-trading with Washington? The US media reported that as quid pro quo for President George W Bush's consent to Russia's claim for World Trade Organization membership, Putin was dumping Russia's "strategic partnership" with Iran. Russian commentators known to be wired to the Kremlin reinforced the impression that political considerations were influencing Moscow.

A member of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow, Aleksei Pushkov, said on March 17 that Russia was abandoning its nuclear cooperation with Iran. He rationalized that Russia was worried that the US could be gearing up for military action against Iran, and Putin didn't want to be confrontational. He argued that Moscow was stressing its commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

Typical of Russian thinking were the cutting remarks by well-connected political observer Gleb Pavlovskiy. He said, "Iran has never been a friend of Russia, not under any regime. We should remember this. It was not a friend under the shah or during the Islamic Republic ... They are not particularly fond of us. We simply should not forget this."

Pavlovskiy added, "There will be a war [between the US and Iran] but Russia's objective is, number one, perhaps to prevent the war happening altogether. The second is to stay out of the war. The third, naturally, would be to participate in the postwar settlement."

To be sure, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on April 22 that Russia was losing its "credibility". The chill was palpable. When Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov visited Tehran for consultations in mid-May, the influential chairman of the Majlis' Foreign and Security Affairs Commission, Alae'ddin Broujerdi, told him Russia's image was sinking.

However, Moscow couldn't grasp that the ground beneath the Iran-Russia relationship had begun to shift dramatically. It took the deterioration in US-Russia relations to make Moscow realize that it would be talking to Washington from a position of disadvantage so long as its ties with neighbors like Iran remained indifferent.

Second, the gathering pace of US-Iran dialogue seemed to have taken Moscow by surprise. The sea-change in the geopolitical setting was underscored by the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman last Sunday when he said the US and the European Union were "softening" their stance toward Iran.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's visit to Tehran this week will almost certainly focus on scheduling the second round of US-Iran talks. Meanwhile, back-channel contacts are continuing. In sum, Iran has succeeded in "engaging" the US. As Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Bager Zolqadr stated in Tehran on Saturday, the likelihood of a US military attack on Iran is "zero"; an economic blockade of Iran is "impossible"; and economic sanctions against Iran are "futile".

Tehran hopes to make the dialogue uninterruptible. Why should it fritter away energy over Russia's "new cold war" with the US? How could Tehran be certain that there are irreconcilable problems separating Putin's Russia from Washington?

Third, the negotiations between Iran and the EU, as well as Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, have begun inching forward. The locus of the nuclear issue seems to gravitate back to the IAEA in Vienna from the United Nations Security Council in New York. Thus the scope for any direct Russian role has diminished and, correspondingly, Tehran's dependence on Moscow. Finally, Russia's Middle East policy has ended up in a cul-de-sac.

With the eruption of intra-Palestinian clashes, Moscow finds itself jettisoning what it fancied to be its trump card, namely its carefully nurtured contacts with Hamas. Russia finds itself falling in line with the US, the EU, the Arab League, and the Middle East Quartet by supporting the actions of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Commentaries in the Russian official media have described Hamas as a terrorist organization. Tehran, on the other hand, voices strong support for the Hamas-led government and views the formation of the emergency government by Abbas as "undemocratic".

But the paradigm is much bigger than it seems. Russia regards the pro-US Arab regimes of the Persian Gulf region as much more meaningful business partners than Iran. These Gulf regimes may spend $60 billion in arms purchases alone in the current year. Flush with funds from oil, they are planning huge investments. Tehran would have noted that Moscow is increasingly keen to harmonize with the Arab League its approaches to the Middle East's problems.

Against this complex background, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's visit to Tehran last week in connection with the conference of Caspian Sea littoral states assumed significance. Clearly, the verve of Russian-Iranian interactions at the political level was lacking.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Lavrov the two countries should "try to stay away from any kind of rivalry that bears no fruit". He reminded Lavrov that their relations are not "superficial" but are very strategic. He counseled that Iran's standoff with the West would be "finally solved after many ups and downs", but Iran-Russia ties should remain "good and unlimited, as a powerful Iran would benefit Russia".

Lavrov agreed that Russia-Iran relations are strategic, "although some foreign powers seek to mar the relations".

Lavrov might have put together a sufficient critical mass to initiate a Russian-Iranian dialogue. Three things emerged. First, a common position with regard to the US deployment of missile-defense systems. Second, Lavrov held out assurances that Russia would fulfill contractual commitments over Bushehr. Third, Lavrov ruled out need of any UN Security Council resolution on the Iran nuclear issue at this juncture.

"UN Security Council resolutions are not an aim in itself," he said. "They are designed to give support to the IAEA. Today we in all contacts with our Iranian friends welcomed the readiness of the Iranian side to clarify the questions the IAEA still has."

Tehran might not be apprehensive of an imminent UN resolution, but it would still be pleased with Moscow's positive signal.

The indications are Tehran will host a summit of Caspian littoral states this year. Iran and Russia find that their positions are converging on two crucial questions concerning the Caspian Sea that have a bearing on the "great game" rivalries.

The Russian daily Kommersant commented last week, "It turns out that Russia's only remaining ally in the Caspian region is Iran. Tehran likes the Russian idea of creating Kasfor [a regional security force comprising littoral states exclusively], and it does not support plans to lay trans-Caspian pipelines that would bypass Russia."

All the same, Iran will remain on guard, given the Kremlin's propensity to do horse-trading with Washington when push comes to shove.

Not surprisingly, Washington has bestirred itself. Senator Richard Lugar, who habitually berates Russia, found himself on Thursday urging Bush and Putin "to solidify new areas of cooperation" on weapons of mass destruction. Lugar said, "For too long, our governments have been at odds over how to respond to Tehran's behavior."

The former head of National Security Council, Brent Scowcroft, concurred: "We [Washington and Moscow] ought to focus on things we can do together."

Iran will step back, no doubt, as Putin visits the Bush family home in Kennebunkport, Maine, this coming weekend. Tehran will match Russian assurances of goodwill against what may unfold when the two leaders ferret out a common agenda for steadying their uncertain relationship. When their efforts against so-called common threats gather momentum or when they search for shared goals, the two leaders have a habit of pitchforking the Iran question.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for more than 29 years, with postings including ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-98) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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