Tehran alarm grows at Russia's defection
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
"Russia's long-term interests will not be served by participating in the US
- Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The indications are that Moscow has now joined the United States' "strategic
game" against Iran. As Tehran's preoccupation grows over this unsettling issue
about its northern neighbor and sole nuclear partner, rumors are circulating
that authorities have interrogated several Russian technicians at the
Russian-built Bushehr power plant over their possible involvement with the
recent cyber-attack that infected staff computers at the facility.
The Bushehr plant was due to open this month, but due to
technical difficulties, a "small leak" according to officials and not the
cyber-attack as initially reported, operations are now slated to begin early
next year. The mystery of the origins of the powerful cyber-attack against Iran
continues, and there are strong suspicions in Iran of a joint US-Israeli
operation, though some in the West now place the blame on Russia. 
Amid this, Tehran is grappling with the challenge of maintaining healthy
relations with Moscow despite growing worrying signs that the Kremlin
leadership has "caved in" to US and Israeli pressure, according to Iran's top
"Unfortunately we are faced with two Russias now instead of one, and one is
friendly - the other is not. As a result, they keep taking away with one hand
what they offer with the other," an Iranian analyst at a Tehran think-tank
tells the author.
Some Tehran analysts attribute the recent "green light" given by Washington for
Russia's World Trade Organization entry to a behind-the-scenes bargain whereby
Moscow is handsomely rewarded for its cooperation with the West against Iran.
The Israeli press has been reporting a "secret US-Russia deal".
The Russian government adamantly denies any such bargain, and its envoy at the
UN General Assembly last week threaded the fine line of exhorting Iran to
enhance its nuclear transparency while lambasting the "unilateral sanctions"
against Iran by US, Europe and others.
That is small comfort to Tehran; such diplomatic nuances on the part of Russian
diplomats can barely compensate for Tehran's realistic fear that Russia may
have been lost to the West. Fueling that fear are President Dmitry Medvedev's
recent decision to ban any commercial sale to Iran related to uranium mining in
Russia and, more important, a ban on the sale of the sophisticated S-300 air
defense system, irrespective of Iran's dire reaction and warning that it will
sue Moscow for breach of its contractual obligations.
Russia, citing the UN sanctions, is now trying to cheat Iran of 90% of the
US$800 million contract on the missile system by repaying only 10% under the
lame excuse of force majeure - a clever "cheating game" according to
some Iranian parliamentarians. That simply adds to Iranian anger that nowadays
is directed first and foremost against Washington, reflected in President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad's remark over the weekend that he wished US leaders would be
"buried", a dramatic turnaround to the more deferential comments during the
initial phase of his recent US visit.
In the US, on the other hand, there is a genuine satisfaction of a "smart Iran
strategy" that is working, not only with the Russians but also, perhaps, with
regional supporters of Iran such as Turkey and Syria. Turkish President
Abdullah Gul made a surprising statement expressing concern about Iran's
nuclear intentions, even as he has urged stronger trade ties with Tehran, and
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month met with Walid al-Moallem, her
With Lebanon's internal tensions intensifying and Ahmadinejad's planned Beirut
visit approaching, Syria may be trying to be a moderating influence on Tehran
at a critical time when retaliation rather than moderation is on the minds of
the Iranian leadership. According to a Tehran analyst, as the Iranian
government must sooner or later send a stern signal to its enemies, the right
place to show some of its teeth may be Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Hezbollah
has toyed with the idea of a military takeover.
There is no foreign policy consensus, however, and a number of other Tehran
pundits counsel a course of action geared to safekeeping Iran's network of
regional support, especially Syria and Turkey, both of whom are being worked on
intensely by Western governments to distance themselves from Tehran as part of
efforts to "isolate" the "nuclearizing Iran". From Tehran's point of view, on
the other hand, the nuclear issue is an "excuse" to weaken an independent
regional power that has resisted Western hegemony since the outset of the
With respect to Russia, the harsh feelings in Tehran about a "sell-out" to the
US may soon translate into a more aggressive Iranian foreign policy action in
Russia's "backyard", the Central Asia-Caucasus. Iran is getting cosy with
Georgia and conceiving a role in alternative pipeline projects that compete
with Russia's pipeline system to Europe. In the Caspian region, Iran's hitherto
amicable relations may turn for the worse if Tehran continues to receive
disturbing information that Russia's intention is to undermine Iranian power in
order to appease its American friends.
In turn, this is bound to negatively affect Iran's cooperation with Russia
through the regional grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO),
where it enjoys the status of an observer. Such a multilateral setback may be
offset by increased ties with Beijing, which is somewhat insulated from the
"diplomatic holes" in Russia's foreign policy. Such weakness is aptly exploited
by the West, which hopes to enlist Russia as a junior partner in the strategic
game with China, in light of recent Russia-India cooperation that is worrying
Beijing, and thus clouding the future of the SCO. At the moment, however, many
Chinese firms have adopted a "wait and see" attitude instead of implementing
the terms of numerous contracts signed with Iran, adding to Tehran's sense of
urgency over its foreign economic policy objectives.
"Russia has been duped by the Americans and their tactical maneuvers, and they
fail to see the long-term strategic loss if they persist in their playing in
the US game against Iran," says a Tehran University political science professor
on the condition of anonymity, adding that the Russians are being
"short-sighted" and sacrificing vested interests with Iran for "a pittance from
the West". And yet, it is doubtful that this necessarily corresponds with
Kremlin's own "risk and opportunity assessment" that includes worries about
Iran's nuclear program.
What is clear is that no matter what inputs in Russia's "foreign policy black
box" motivate its current bandwagoning against Iran, relations between Russia
and Iran are deteriorating and require immediate resuscitation, especially by
Moscow. Without action, Tehran's misgivings about Russia's position on the
political faultlines dividing Iran and the West will inevitably grow, thus
damaging their overall economic and strategic relations.