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Russia: Ivanov In Iran Amid Warming Bilateral Ties

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov arrived in Tehran today at the start of a regional tour that will take him through Iran and on to Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Ivanov's talks with the Iranian leadership will be watched with particular interest amid growing indications the Kremlin is reassessing its relations with the United States.

Prague, 11 March 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Bilateral economic interests are drawing Russia and Iran closer together. And with the United States appearing increasingly likely to go to war against neighboring Iraq, foreign policy interests are as well.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov's trip to Tehran today has been eagerly anticipated by both sides. And analysts expect the visit to further cement the warming ties between the two countries -- at least in the short to medium term.

Iraq is likely to be uppermost in the minds of both Russian and Iranian officials during Ivanov's visit. Despite Russia's announcement yesterday that it will join France in voting against a second UN resolution whose terms could pave the way for the use of force against Iraq, the United States appears increasingly likely to launch a war against Saddam Hussein regardless of what the Security Council decides.

Stephan De Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the RAND Europe think tank, tells RFE/RL this leads Moscow and Tehran to ponder a simple question.

"As war seems ever more likely, the question becomes: What will be after Iraq? And Iran is a key player, and in a lot of questions on these issues Iran and Russia have similar points of view."

Russia and Iran are interested in maintaining stability in the region. Both share concerns about the possible breakup of Iraq in the aftermath of an American-led invasion. And as major oil producers, they are also keen to avoid a steep drop in the price of crude should the U.S. operation go smoothly.

Aleksei Malashenko, professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, tells RFE/RL that in addition, Iran's leaders fear Washington may turn its attention to them, once operations in Iraq are over.

"There are fears in Iran about the fact that they could be next on the target list," he said. "So, from this point of view, Ivanov's visit is meant to underscore the special relationship between Moscow and Tehran, it is meant to underscore the fact that Moscow will continue to maintain very good relations with Iran and cooperation in all spheres -- including military cooperation and the building of civilian atomic energy projects."

This suits Moscow's purpose because, as De Spiegeleire notes, Ivanov's visit to Iran and his follow-on stops in Afghanistan and Tajikistan appear to be part of a shift in Russian foreign policy. With his efforts to cultivate special relations with the United States coming under increased criticism in political and military circles at home for yielding much to little apparent advantage, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have sensed an opportunity in the Iraq crisis and decided to reverse course.

In De Spiegeleire's words, Russia has apparently decided to jump off the U.S. "bandwagon" and return to Moscow's traditional strategy of reasserting its regional influence while balancing its relations with Europe, America, and the big powers in Asia. So although Moscow and Tehran may not see eye-to-eye on certain issues, those disagreements pale in comparison to the need to offset U.S. moves.

"This is all against a background of this new potential shift from a 'bandwagoning' strategy to a 'balancing' strategy with the United States. And that's certainly the main driving force behind everything that's being done now. So a lot of other considerations may be made secondary to this larger attempt to forge the multipolar countercoalition that Russia has been talking about for a long time and now might actually be able to materialize."

Of greatest concern to the United States is the continued cooperation between Moscow and Tehran on nuclear issues. Moscow says its work on completing Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant is purely civilian and therefore allowed under international agreements. Russia says it will supply Iran with the nuclear fuel it needs for the plant's eventual operation and will retake possession of that fuel once it is spent. It says U.S. concerns about the plant are groundless.

But Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's revelation last month that Iran is mining its own uranium and also working to enrich it has redoubled criticism from Washington, which has called on Moscow to abandon the project.

Ivanov today, speaking to journalists after an initial set of talks with his Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharazzi, said Tehran had presented all the necessary guarantees and that Bushehr's construction would continue.

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