Washington, March 8 (RFE/RL) - At high-level meetings in
Moscow this week, Russia and Iran have agreed to expand their
cooperation across the board, an agreement likely to have enormous
The agreements -- on "closer" cooperation concerning regional
security and continued Russian supplies of nuclear technology and
military aircraft to Iran -- were announced Thursday following
meetings between Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati and
Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Foreign Minister Yevgeny
Primakov. Velayati is in Moscow for a three-day visit following a
whirlwind swing through the former Soviet republics in Central Asia,
the Transcaucasus and Ukraine.
Despite the horror such accords are likely to inspire in the West,
the interests of Russia and of Iran in such agreements are obvious:
For Moscow, closer ties with Iran will help to shore up Russian
influence in Central Asia and the Transcaucasus by isolating the
countries of those regions from the West. As the recent discussion
of pipelines shows, these countries have few good routes to the West
if Iran remains an international pariah and Russia seeks to extract
political concessions for economic opportunities.
Such ties may also help Russia to put additional pressure on the
Chechens -- Yeltsin reportedly welcomed Velayati's support for
Moscow's position on that conflict. Moreover, these accords give
Russia a new beachhead in the Middle East among countries the U.S.
has tried to isolate and thus allow Moscow to re-enter Middle Eastern
politics in a major, albeit potentially destabilizing way. And not
unimportantly in the current Russian election season, they
demonstrate that Yeltsin is prepared to directly challenge the U.S.
on key issues and in a way that the Russian president's political
opponents have specifically urged.
For Iran, such an expansion in ties with Russia is perhaps even more
valuable. Not only do such ties help to limit the impact of the U.S.
effort to isolate Iran diplomatically -- an effort that Washington
coincidentally on Thursday announced it was redoubling because of
Iranian involvement in terrorism against Israel -- but they provide
Tehran with access to technologies most Western countries are
unwilling to supply.
Perhaps equally important, in the current Iranian election season --
Iranians go to the polls to vote for a new parliament today
-- the announcement of such ties will play well with those in Iran
who believe the current Iranian government is now insufficiently
anti-American and who might have been thinking about opposing that
government's candidates for the legislature. By linking up with
Russia now, the current government of President Akbar Hashemi
Rafsanjani undoubtedly hopes to win them over and thus retain its
current dominance in the parliament.
But it would be a mistake to see this agreement as being simply an
election year gimmick with consequences only at the ballot box.
Instead, these accords are likely to have a far broader impact in
three concentric circles:
First, they will immediately increase Russian influence in Central
Asia and the Transcaucasus by further isolating these countries from
the West. With Iranian cooperation, Moscow will be able to argue
credibly that it is the only route out for these countries, something
that will give Moscow still more leverage against them. Not
accidentally, several of the countries of these regions -- such as
Azerbaijan -- were extremely nervous about this possibility when
Velayati visited them on his way to Moscow. But over the longer term,
these accords may give Iran more influence in that region as well by
removing potential ideological competitors such as Turkey from
positions of influence. Thus the agreements of today may not last well into the future.
Second, these agreements will give Russia a new lever in the Middle
East, but one that is likely to destabilize the situation rather than
ameliorate it. A Russian-Iranian link will almost certainly redivide
the countries of the Gulf and beyond and complicate further progress
in the peace process between Israel and her neighbors.
And third, these agreements will again put Russia at odds with the
United States on an important and salient issue. While the West may
be understanding about Moscow's desire to have an increasingly
independent foreign policy, it is difficult to imagine that many in
the West will be comfortable with Yeltsin's new choice of friends.
In the short term, these agreements are likely to cast a shadow over
a meeting later this month between U.S. Secretary of State Warren
Christopher and Russian Foreign Minister Primakov. In the longer
term, these accords between Russia and Iran are likely to affect the
relations between many other countries as well.