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Iran and Russia: No Love Lost - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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For 30 years, Khomeinist mobs have been burning the United States’ flag in public amid shouts of “Death to America!”

These days, however, it is the Russian flag that is burned by protestors chanting “Down with Russia!”

Angry Iranians regard Russia as a friend of a regime that has “stolen” a presidential election and is trying to crush the democracy movement.

This wave of anti-Russian sentiments has been so strong that even commentators in Moscow have noticed.

But is it justified?

Russophobia has a long history in Iran.

It started with the wars that the tsars launched against a weakened Persia from the late 18th century to 1830, annexing large tracts of Iranian territory in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In the Caucasus, through four decades of intermittent wars, Iran lost Daghestan, Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia, Ajaria, Aran ( Now Azerbaijan) and Armenia to Russia. In Central Asia, the Russians annexed such centers of Persian culture as Bokhara, Samarkand and Merv.

In 1829, a mob attacked the Russian Embassy in Tehran, killing most of its employees including the Minister Plenipotentiary, Alexander Griboidev.

Peter the Great and Catherin the Great, dreamed of annexing the whole of Iran so that Russia could reach the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

By mid-19th century, Moscow had turned the Caspian Sea, for centuries an Iranian lake, into a Russian pond in which Iran was denied even a commercial navy. Russia maintained a monopoly on the lucrative caviar trade until Iran nationalized the industry in 1951.

In 1909, Russia signed a pact with Great Britain, another enemy of Iran at the time, to divide it into two spheres of influence. Iran’s newly created constitutional government resisted that plot and reasserted what was left of the nation’s independence.

Two years later, the Russians landed troops on the Iranian side of the Caspian, in support of princes and mullahs who tried, and failed, to destroy the new constitutional government.

The Russians invaded again during the First World War and returned home only after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

In 1919, a contingent of Bolshevik “military instructors” arrived in Gilan, on the Iranian side of the Caspian, to set-up a secessionist “Republic of the Jungle” as part of Komintern”s strategy for “setting the East ablaze.”

When that attempt failed in 1921, the Bolsheviks signed a treaty with Tehran under which Russia received the right to land troops in Iran when and if it felt threatened by the presence of foreign forces.

By 1940, Russia had lost its overt influence in Iran while the NKVD, the Soviet secret service, had acquired a clandestine presence by creating the Tudeh (Masses) Party in Tehran, and the Democratic Sect, a secessionist outfit, in the province of Azerbaijan.

A year later, Russian troops were back, this time in alliance with Britain, with the aim of using Iran as “a bridge of victory” for supplying the Red Army against Nazi invaders in Europe. (US forces joined the duo in 1942).

At the end of the war, Stalin refused to withdraw his troops from the Iranian provinces of Azerbaijan and Kurdistan with the intention of turning them first into independent entities and then annexing them to the USSR. However, Iran, backed by the US that at the time had a monopoly on nuclear weapons, using the threat of a regional war that an exhausted USSR could not contemplate, forced Stalin to recall his armies

By the 1960s, the Soviet Union had become a marginal player in Iran. It tried to pressure Iran to distance itself from the West by supporting radical Arab regimes in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq that waged a propaganda war against the Shah’s regime.

At the same time, Moscow refused to abrogate the 1921 and 1941 treaties that Iran had signed under duress. In 1970, the Shah declared both treaties “dead and buried”. In 1979, the new Khomeinist regime repeated that position. With the fall of the USSR, everyone assumed that the treaties were dead.

Playing the Russian card has formed a major part of Ahmadinejad’s strategy in what he sees as his Jihad to create “a world without America.” Dreaming of an anti-American axis that includes China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, the Sudan and Venezuela, Ahmadinejad has gone out of his way to woo Moscow:

— In 2005 Ahmadinejad declared that Iran recognized the abrogated treaties as valid. This was seen as a diplomatic warning to the United States not to take military action against the Islamic Republic because such a move could lead to Russian military intervention.

— In 2007, he withdrew Iranian support for Kosovo’s independence, despite the fact that 98 per cent of the newly created republic’s inhabitants are Muslims. Iran has joined Russia in rejecting Kosovo’s demand to become a member of the United Nations.

— He has abandoned Iran’s policy of protecting refugees by handing over to Russia scores of Chechen, Ingush and Daghestani fighters, all Muslims, who had fled from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban. The previous Iranian government under Muhammad Khatami had allowed refugees who did not wish to remain in Iran to travel to other Muslim countries. According to Chechen sources, more than 100 fighters handed over to Russia by Iran were executed in 2006 and 2007.

— Ahmadinejad has backed Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its effective annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This complements his policy of working with Russia and Armenia in Transcaucasus to limit US influence.

— He has joined Russia in opposing US plans to build anti-missile shields in Poland and the Czech Republic.

— He has applied for membership of the so-called Shanghai Group, a regional alliance created by Moscow with China and the Central Asian republics.

— Reversing a previous policy of diversification, he has decided to grant most of the contracts for building 22 new nuclear power stations to Russia. This was one of the reasons for the resignation of Gholam-Reza Aghazadeh, the long-serving head of Iran’s nuclear programme, this month. Aghazadeh believes the Russians are playing the Iranian card to secure concessions from the US and do not intend to help Iran build a credible nuclear industry. The Russians were scheduled to complete the Bushehr nuclear power station in 2005. Four years later, there is no sign that they intend to do so.

— He has signed the biggest arms contract in the history of Russo-Iranian trade for the purchase of S300 antiaircraft missile systems. Although Moscow has repeatedly postponed delivery, Tehran has not even critcised the delays.

— Under Ahmadinejad, the number of Iranians training in Russia has increased fourfold. Russia is training hundreds of Iranian security personnel and providing materiel used against demonstrators.

Ahmadinejad’s opponents in Tehran claim that his pro-Russian policy reflects the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi.

Muhammad Muhsin Sazgara, a former member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who has defected to the US, claims that Khamenehi established ties with the KGB, the Soviet secret service, years before the revolution.

At the time the idea was that the Soviet Union, being the only power standing up to the United States, would help Khomeinists destroy Iran’s pro-West regime.

According to that analysis, Khamenehi and Ahmadinejad believe that Russia, though much weakened, could help the Islamic Republic destroy American influence in the Middle East.

Russian support for the Khomeinist regime may be less solid than Sazgara and others claim. Nevertheless, the perception in Iran is that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime is the principal foreign supporter of the theocracy in Tehran. Burning the Russian flag is one way for Iranians to send a message to Moscow.

* Amir Taheri’s new book ” The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution” is published by Encounter Books in New York and London.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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