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Russia/Iran: Odd Couple In Tehran?

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Tehran (MEHR) October 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad met for talks in Tehran today during the first visit to the Iranian capital by a Kremlin leader in more than four decades.

Historically, Russia and Iran have long been rivals, and the last trip to Tehran by a Kremlin leader came in 1963 by Leonid Brezhnev. But Moscow finds itself in a different role these days, for its own pragmatic reasons.

The bilateral talks followed a regional summit of Caspian Sea states. As expected, Putin reaffirmed Russia’s support for Iran’s development of nuclear energy in a statement at the end of the summit. "All the Caspian countries reiterate their commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on condition that each of our countries has the right to develop peaceful nuclear programs without any restrictions," Putin said.

In recent years, Russia has become one of Iran’s key international partners. Ahmadinejad, in an interview with Russian television on the eve of Putin’s visit, said the two countries are “natural allies from the geographical as well as from the political and cultural point of view.”

But the historical record belies this assertion. In fact, Russia and Iran have mostly been adversaries. In the 19th century, Russian imperial forces battled with the Persians over control of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Early in the 20th century, Russian soldiers even occupied parts of northern Persia and later tried, with Britain, to carve up the country into spheres of influence.

During World War II, the Soviet Union together with Britain reinvaded the country to secure its oil fields. Soviet troops later tried to establish a puppet regime before withdrawing. More recently, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union backed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in his bloody war with Tehran.

Yet to paraphrase the 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston, in politics there are no permanent allies -- or enemies -- only permanent interests. And the interests of Moscow and Tehran currently align on several fronts.

United Against 'Unipolarism'

Politically, both countries find their new alliance a useful counterweight against pressure from the West. Both Putin and Ahmadinejad frequently talk about the need to resist “unipolarism” -- code for U.S. influence.

Ahmadinejad, in his interview with Russian television, tried to appeal to the anti-Western camp in Moscow, saying both Iran and Russia were “countries of the Eastern type with the same Eastern features.”

Economically, the U.S. embargo against Iran has driven Tehran closer to Moscow. Iran has turned to Russia to renew its civilian air fleet, to update its military and industrial infrastructure, and of course, to build its first nuclear power plant, at Bushehr.

Nina Mamedova, who heads the Iranian department at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Eastern Studies, says Iran remains a reliable economic partner for Russia. "We are involved in a lot of mutual projects – in the spheres of oil, gas and transport. And of course for Russia it’s important to support these good relations with Iran, in order to participate in all these projects,” Mamedova said.

Nuclear Cooperation

But the nuclear issue risks forcing Russia into a corner. Next month, the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to report to the UN Security Council on Iran’s level of cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors. If the report is negative, Washington and its European allies will push for a third, tougher round of sanctions against Tehran.

Russia, along with China, has repeatedly indicated it does not favor the move, but Moscow appears to be leaving itself some maneuvering room. Putin recently told visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia operates “on the principle” that Iran does not plan to make or acquire nuclear weapons.

If the UN’s nuclear watchdog indicates otherwise, Moscow might change its position. In a signal that Moscow could get tough if Tehran continues to defy calls to halt its uranium enrichment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently emphasized that “Iran must respond to the demands of the international community.”

In another not-so-subtle signal from Russia, cooperation on finishing the Bushehr nuclear plant has also recently foundered.

Up to now, the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow has served Russia’s interests. But it’s not a very stable alliance. And ultimately, as many analysts note, Russia has little interest in seeing Tehran get the bomb.

(RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold in Moscow contributed to this report.)

Assessing Ahmadinejad

Assessing Ahmadinejad

President Ahmadinejad in parliament (ISNA photo)

Mohammad Maleki, the first head of Tehran University following the Islamic revolution, says he doesn't believe the students' criticism of the government constitutes a revolution.

"What is going on right now is that because [the government] cannot tolerate the students' criticism, they try to prevent it by shutting down universities and by threatening professors and students," Maleki says. "What they are currently doing is in my opinion, and in the opinion of many professors, aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear and terror among professors and students to stop them from openly criticizing the government."

Ali Niku Nesbati, a member of the Office to Foster Unity, Iran's largest pro-reform student group, says that during Ahmadinejad's presidency, the disciplinary committee has issued warnings to 523 students for political activism. He adds that over the past year alone, more than 1,700 students have been "marked with stars" and subsequently encountered difficulties when applying for graduate degrees. (Ahmadinejad's government has reportedly adopted a "star rating" system for student activists and gives regime critics between one and three stars, depending on the perceived threat they pose.)

Nesbati says what is noteworthy is that "as the government is faced with more problems and is unable to resolve them, we are encountering more repression."

"As we have witnessed over the past few months, more pressures have been exerted on women, workers, and teachers," Nesbati says. "The same obviously applies to students."

(Nesbati was imprisoned on July 9, 2007. He made the above statements before his imprisonment.)


Abbas Marufi, an Iranian writer and publisher based in Berlin, says never in Iran's history has the book market faced tougher circumstances than today.

"The government has laid the foundations for the destruction of good and professional publishing in Iran," he says, adding that the government has created a situation that is exploited by "pseudo-publishers" -- as he describes them -- who are in the business solely to profit by publishing books for which they can get subsidies.

Marufi says that over the past two years, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has even started to revoke publishing rights issued by previous governments.

Ebrahim Nabavi, a journalist and satirist, says the book-publishing sector today faces circumstances similar to those 10 years ago. According to Nabavi, it has become very difficult to get accreditation for new publications or to renew old licences.

But Sadegh Samii, director of publishing house Ketabsara, says many government critics are simply ignorant of the rules and regulations of publishing in Iran.

"We Iranians are in the habit of blaming others for our own failures," says Sadegh Samii, director of the publication "Ketabsara." "So if at any point in time, I'm unable to select a good book and find a qualified translator, I put the blame on the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But this is unjustified."

Samii says over the past 27 or 28 years, the ministry's regulations have not changed at all. But he admits that the regulations have been applied more or less strictly during different periods.


Siamak Taheri, a newspaper journalist based in Iran, says Ahmadinejad was elected two years ago on the promise that he would bring social equality to the country. At the time, many Iranians were dissatisfied with their country's economic situation and had lost faith in the reformists' ability to improve it, so they pinned their hopes on Ahmadinejad.

"But the economic situation has worsened under Ahmadinejad and unemployment and corruption have increased." Taheri blames the situation on the makeup of the government.


Shirin Ebadi, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner, says she has not seen the government "take any positive action in the fight against high prices and in the struggle for prosperity, which is an important human right." Ebadi says this has prompted workers and teachers to hold strikes, which unfortunately have led to arrests and interrogations.


Nahid Kheirabi, a journalist and women activist based in Iran, says one of the "reactionary viewpoints of the 9th republic has been the renewed discourse on the legitimacy of temporary marriage," which according to Kheirabi constitutes "an insult and a threat to humanity, to both men and women." But Kheirabi says society's negative reaction to the concept of temporay marriage has forced Ahmadinejad's people to retreat on this issue.