Until just a few months ago the official commentariat in Tehran
was building a lot of pies in the sky with the prospect of a new axis to oppose the global influence of the American “Great Satan.” The axis would consist of Venezuela, Russia, China and the Islamic Republic.
With its experience of challenging the United States throughout the Cold War, Russia was supposed to play a central role in the imagined axis.
Now, however, it seems as if Russia is being out of the imagined axis to be included in the “the club of Iran’s enemies”, according to a commentary published by IRNA, the official news agency on 12 July.
In that commentary, President Dmitri Medvedev is described as an American “puppet” and advised to listen to “the wise counsel of Russia’s elder statesmen”, presumably including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The initial reason for Tehran’s anger was Russia’s decision to vote for new United Nations’ sanctions against the Khomeinist regime. That was compounded by President Medvedev’s assertions that Tehran was, indeed, trying to build a nuclear arsenal and that Russia would not allow that to happen.
Playing the Russian card formed a major part of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s strategy from the start of his mandate in 2005.
So keen was Ahmadinejad to woo Moscow that he announced the revival of two Irano-Russian treaties signed respectively in 1921 and 1941. The treaties give Moscow the sole right to maintain a navy in the Caspian Sea and to land troops in Iranian territory when Russia felt threatened. The treaties had been denounced by successive governments under the Shah. But it was not until 1979 that Ibrahim Yazdi, who briefly served as Khomeini’s foreign minister, announced the formal cancellation of the two treaties.
No doubt acting with the consent of Ali Khamenehi, the “Supreme Guide”, Ahmadinejad went further in his attempt at winning Russia’s support. He put a stop to the coming-and-goings of Chechen and Daghestani fighters, trained in Afghanistan and Pakistan, who passed through Iran to reach the war zones in the Caucasus.
In 2006 he closed the Tehran offices of the Caucasian “Mujahedin” and handed some 30 Chechen and Ingush campaigners to Russia under an invalidated agreement signed in 1969.
The Khomeinist regime’s moves against the Russian “Mujahedin” is now seen in Tehran as a major element in Moscow’s success in crushing the Chechen revolt, at least temporarily.
It was, therefore, no surprise that the IRNA commentary included a barely concealed threat that Tehran might reverse that policy. It reminded Medvedev that if Iran were weakened, presumably by UN sanctions, “the current situation in Chechniya and Ingushetia would not remain the same.”
Russia’s policy on Iran has been a model of duplicity.
While happy to see the Islamic Republic act as thorn in the side of the Americans, Russia has been careful not to let the Khomeinist regime get too big for its mullah’s slippers.
Russia invited the Islamic Republic to attend the meetings of the Shanghai Group, which also includes China and the Central Asian republics, as a thank-you gesture for Ahmadinejad’s anti-Chechen policy. But when Ahmadinejad demanded that Iran be accepted as a full member, Russia insisted that nothing more than an observer’s status should be granted to the Islamic Republic.
Both Putin, as president, and Medvedev have politely ignored Tehran’s persistent demands that Ahmadinejad be invited to Moscow for a full state visit. Both men have also declined repeated invitations for a state visit to the Islamic Republic although Putin spent a day and a half in Tehran in the context of a summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states.
The supreme insult came last year when Ahmadinejad was not invited to the same summit, presumably because of his controversial re-election and the public uprisings that followed in Iran.
There are a number of other indications that Moscow is no longer sure of the Islamic Republic’s stability under Ahmadinejad’s maverick domestic and foreign policies.
First, Moscow is pushing for the finalisation of a treaty that would divide the Caspian Sea among its five littoral states; Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan.
Under the Russian scheme, unveiled last year, Iran, which has the longest coastline on the inland sea will end up with 11.5 per cent of the Caspian’s oil, mineral and fish resources. Iran has always opposed the scheme and insisted that the Caspian be regarded as “inland water” an equally shared among the five littoral states. Under that formula, Iran would end up with 25 per cent of the sea’s resources.
The Iranian formula would also give littoral states veto power over contracts with companies from non-littoral countries.
Using that power, Tehran would be able to exclude European and American companies that currently enjoy the lion’s share in most contracts, especially in developing oil and gas resources.
Even when it comes to Caspian caviar, Moscow has adopted a tough stance against Tehran.
Moscow vetoed last year’s quota that allowed Iran to catch 1000 tonnes of the high price sturgeon fish. As result no caviar was exported from the Caspian in 2009.
This year, Tehran was forced to accept a quota of 800 tonnes. Moscow ended up with 2400 tonnes, including the share of Kazakhstan controlled by Russian companies.
Russia has also announced it would not deliver the S300 anti-aircraft missile system that the Islamic Republic paid for in 2007. The system would have significantly increased Iran’s defences against possible air attacks by Israel or the United States.
The Bushehr nuclear power plant, the first of its kind in Iran, presents another piece of the jigsaw.
The Russians were supposed to switch it on in March 2005.
Now, however, they promise to start “final tests” sometime before the end of 2010. Many in Tehran, including Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the former head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency, believe that the Russians will never do so.
In the average Iranian’s historical landscape, Russia has always been regarded as one of the two traditional enemies of Iran along with Great Britain. This is why Ahmadinejad’s apparently Russophile gestures were never popular.
While scaling down its political and diplomatic support for the Islamic Republic, Russia is keen to maintain, if not enhance, its economic ties to Iran. Russia’s trade with Iran amounts to no more than $3 billion a year, making it the 10th foreign partner of the Islamic Republic.
Last week, Lukoil, the Russian state-owned oil giant, offered to sell Iran gasoline in defiance of sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union. In exchange, Lukoil wants an exclusive contract to develop oilfields in the Iranian waters of the Caspian. If Ahmadinejad were to grant Lukoil such a contract, Russia would see part of a dream that it has had since the middle of the 19th century come true.
Is Russia trying to exploit the Islamic Republic’s current weakness and isolation to realise its dream of securing a dominant position in Iran?
Rather than echoing Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy of insults and threats, the Tehran commentariat should ponder that question.