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Russia: Iran Maintains Strained Relations

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 3 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Despite appearances of friendship, there have been increasing signs of strains between Russia and Iran as Tehran raises the pressure for an end to the war in Chechnya.

On Monday, the Russian cabinet approved an Iranian proposal for a mission to Moscow to discuss the Chechnya conflict after Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov received the request from his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, in Tehran over the weekend.

Iran took the initiative in its role as chairman of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. But Russia's need to deliberate at the cabinet level before giving its approval suggests that Ivanov was not briefed in advance on the proposal and not prepared with a response.

The mission scheduled for next Monday comes as Moscow is slowly bending to similar pressure from Europe. A representative of the Council of Europe was allowed to visit Chechnya and Dagestan this week, although Russia has continued to resist a role for the OSCE.

But the Kremlin may need to be more careful with demands from Tehran. It can hardly blame Western interference for international anti-war sentiment when it comes from Iran and the OIC.

Iran has gradually increased its public concern about the war since clashes began in August. It initially voiced sympathy for Russia over the issue of terrorism when the fighting was seen as a response to apartment bombings in Moscow. But at a press conference Wednesday, Kharrazi called the war "worrying."

Iran's measured statements are likely to be only a token of its opposition to the attacks on an Islamic population near its borders. Chechen refugees have fled as far as Kazakhstan, a potential problem for Iran with a large refugee population of its own.

Diplomatic visits and contacts between Russia and Iran have been frequent since the start of the war, as Moscow has tried to assure Tehran that its campaign is not anti-Islamic in tone. The danger of provoking any unofficial Iranian support for the Chechen fighters certainly cannot be lost on Moscow. On Monday, the Russian cabinet approved Iran's plan to send humanitarian aid to the war's refugees.

The war may also run the risk of tipping the delicate balance of interests between Russia and Iran. Although the two countries are often viewed in the West as a unified front, their relationship requires an enormous amount of maintenance. Historic distrust has been tempered only by present-day needs for cooperation on arms and resistance to the United States.

Even on the list of current bilateral issues, the scales are always in danger of tipping. This week, the two countries joined in a statement opposing a U.S.-backed plan for a trans-Caspian gas pipeline to Turkey before all five shoreline states have agreed on dividing the waterway.

Despite the show of solidarity, the position appears to represent one of the few issues on which Iran and Russia can agree. Even within the limited realm of the Caspian and energy, the two countries are pursuing competitive interests. While Russia is pressing ahead with its Blue Stream project to pipe gas across the Black Sea to Turkey, Iran's rival plan to pipe gas to Ankara appears stalled because Turkey has slowed work on its side of the line.

Russia has already taken stakes with Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan in Caspian development without a littoral agreement. Iran is unlikely to see any benefit in Russia's bid to recapture its Caspian pipeline route through Chechnya, which competes with Tehran's hopes for its own routes and oil swaps.

Iran also appears to be refining its list of demands for relations with the United States, a move that could give it even less common ground with Moscow. At the same press conference Wednesday, Foreign Minister Kharrazi was asked what practical steps would be needed to establish bilateral ties. The list seemed shorter than the usual rehearsal of grievances and demands.

As reported by the official news agency IRNA, Kharrazi said Washington must lift economic sanctions, stop opposing regional cooperation, end interference in Iran's internal affairs and quit providing equipment to opposition groups. Notably absent was any mention of U.S. support for Israel, the Middle East peace process, naval forces in the Persian Gulf or Iranian claims on frozen assets.

It is unclear whether Iran's list of terms for relations is only partial or whether it is growing shorter. Stiff opposition by Iran's hard-liners may soon correct any perception of softening. But the timing suggests that tensions with Russia are rising at a time of potential for improvement with the United States.

At the minimum, Iran appears to be saying that Russia cannot afford to take it for granted and that it will not remain silent about the war in Chechnya. So far, Tehran seems to be taking care in balancing its interests, while Moscow is busy trying to control the damage it has caused.