Russia's Relationship with Iran
Despite the emotional build up in the Western press before President Putin's recent trip to Iran, not much has resulted from it. Right after the trip, the UK Daily Telegraph wrote that Putin's pragmatism should not be confused with friendship, and that despite the polite handshakes, Putin and Ahmadinejad simply don't trust each other.
The Wall Street Journal rushed to report that Putin is the first Russian leader to visit Iran since 1943, when Joseph Stalin paid a visit to the country. However, according to New York Post contributor Amir Taheri, this may not quite be true (the Soviet leaders Krushchev and Brezhnev reportedly visited Iran during the 60s and 70s) and the comparison was more sensational than anything else. Not one of the Islamic Republic's hopes in regards to more favorable policies from Russia came true.
The theocratic regime's main goal at the summit was to get a commitment from Russia to resume work on the nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr. While the Iranian President boasted that he would increase bilateral trade between Russia and Iran to $100 billion a year in the next decade, he failed to receive any assurance that the delayed Bushehr nuclear project would actually go forward.
Putin and Ahmadinejad exchange handshakes
Earlier this year, Russian companies halted their work at Bushehr for several months, citing hundreds of millions in unpaid Iranian debts as the reason. The Islamic Republic accused Moscow of caving in to political pressure from Washington - but with all of the strains on Iran's oil and gas industry, it is quite possible that the Bushehr project has become strapped for cash.
The Bush Administration and several U.S. allies fear that Iran could attempt to divert spent uranium fuel rods from its civilian reactors towards an illicit enrichment program to produce a nuclear bomb. The Russian Foreign Ministry has repeatedly argued that Iran should send spent fuel rods from Bushehr to Russia for reprocessing, but the Iranians have rejected these proposals, insisting that they have the right to control their own nuclear fuel cycle, and that their nuclear program is peaceful in nature.
There is no doubt that President Putin was given the royal treatment by the Iranians, and several executives from Gazprom were represented in the presidential delegation. Even so, Russian journalists traveling with President Putin experienced first-hand what it's like to live in a Muslim country ruled by a theocratic regime. The Iranian Ministry of Culture did not assign a bureaucrat to supervise and censor the content produced by the Russian journalists on their trip. Many Iranian officials could not locate the Ministry of Culture's "minder" and thus attempted to limit the Russian journalists from visiting certain sites. These tensions were eventually resolved; and towards the end of the trip, Russian journalists claimed to have enjoyed complete freedom to report what they wanted from the country. The bureaucrat from the Ministry of Culture never showed his face.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the People's Republic of China, a key ally of Iran, warned that additional sanctions could increase regional tensions over Iran's nuclear program. A Chinese ministry official said in a brief statement that, "Dialogue and negotiations are the best approach to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. To impose new sanctions on Iran at a time when international society and the Iranian authorities are working hard to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue can only complicate the issue." China is currently investing billions of dollars into Iran's oil and gas industry, and the Chinese economy will soon be much more dependent on energy imports from the Persian Gulf region than the U.S. and Europe.
Meanwhile, back in Teheran, Russia is seen as the only remaining credible European nation left ready to deal with the country. Russian bilateral trade with Iran is the main reason. The trading relationship currently amounts to $2 billion a year and is roughly equal to 8% of Russia's trade with the United States, which is now $24.5 billion per year. Russian officials and reporters are often the only foreigners free to visit several sensitive sites on the ground inside Iran.
Western countries should embrace the disposition in Russian-Iranian relations, because while tensions between the West and Iran continue to mount, Russia is viewed by the Iranians as the only nation that play the role of mediator, and help avoid another costly war in the Middle East.