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Russia, Iran Expand Ties

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 geopolitical consequences.

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.