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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Moscow, Tehran, And Berlin

Washington, 14 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's warm embrace of Tehran only a day after a Berlin court held the Iranian government responsible for the assasination of exiled dissidents highlights a deep divide between East and West, one neither side is likely to find easy to bridge.

On Friday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin told visiting Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Noori that relations between Moscow and Tehran were "good" and would "grow." The Iranian responded on Moscow's popular television program "Hero for a Day" by condemning what he called "the West's intrigue against the East" and by backing Russian opposition to NATO expansion.

Yeltsin's decision to reaffirm his government's ties to a country most Western governments consider a rogue state reflects far more than an appeal to the Russian nationalism of his domestic opponents and far more than a simple response to Western proposals to expand the Western alliance.

Russian communists and nationalists were indeed enthusiastic in their support of Yeltsin's move, but so too were some normally associated with democratic reforms, a pattern that undercuts the arguments of those who suggest the Russian president is simply trying to undercut his opponents.

Gennady Seleznyov, the communist speaker of the Duma, for example, not only received Nateq-Noori but sharply criticized the German court's decision. "No court in the world has the right to accuse a state of terrorism," Seleznyov said, thus dismissing a decision welcomed and supported by virtually all European countries and the United States.

Another communist deputy added that Moscow "has spent decades building its relations with Iran, which is our strategic partner." And he expressed regret that relations had been allowed to deteriorate until now.

But the words of Russian reformers and democrats were not that different. Galina Starovoitova, one of the leaders of the Russia's Choice party, told Western journalists that Moscow enjoyed "special relations" with Tehran and that "Iran continues to support us" as a counterbalance to Turkey and on the question of oil and gas pipelines.

And at the same time, most Russian and Western reports on Yeltsin's meeting with the Iranian parliamentarian was more than simply "an opportunity to spite" the West over NATO as one Moscow publication suggested.

It provided Yeltsin with an opportunity to cement a relationship that has already brought him and Moscow certain very real benefits. Tehran is a major purchaser of Russian military equipment and nuclear technology.

Tehran backs Moscow's position on the status of the Caspian sea, thus limiting the ability of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan to export their oil and gas to the West and helping to preserve Russian influence in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia.

And Tehran represents a geopolitical asset for Moscow both to counterbalance American and Western power in the Middle East and to limit the impact of Turkey both there and in Central Asia.

But these domestic and foreign policy benefits that Moscow's ties to Tehran bring Yeltsin come at an enormous price, the isolation of Russia from the West on an issue -- international terrorism -- that many in the West are deeply concerned about and increasingly united in opposing.

The European media hailed the decision of the Berlin court as both courageous and correct. The countries of the European Union suspended their dialogue with Tehran, with many of them pulling their diplomats out of Iran.

And U.S. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said it provided support for Washington's "long-held view that Iran's sponsorship of terrorism is authorized at senior levels of the Iranian government."

By taking such a pro-Iranian position and by demonstrating that it reflects the views of much of Russia's political spectrum, Yeltsin and his country may find that they will thus lose far more than they gain. Iran, after all, is not that great a prize for Russia.

It is not strong enough to serve as a genuine counterweight to the West even in the Middle East, and Tehran's embrace of Moscow may actually weaken the current Iranian government and hence its value to the Russians.

Abulhasan Banisadr, the exiled former president of Iran, told RFE/RL last week that "what Russia is doing, in my opinion, is leading Iranian public opinion to understand that this regime has lost all support it had in the West." Banisadr suggested that would "permit the Iranian people to act to re-establish democracy."

Banisadr's optimism may be premature, but Yeltsin's cozying up to Iran, especially in the wake of the Berlin decision, will almost certainly have an impact on East-West ties. Such Russian-Iranian links will make it difficult, if not impossible for those Western leaders now seeking closer ties with Moscow to continue in that direction.

On the one hand, these leaders are likely to find it hard to continue portray Russia as a country aspiring to membership in the West when its government seems so bent on pursuing an "oriental" strategy.

And on the other, they are likely to find it even more difficult to justify to their own populations any help for a government that is openly supporting one that has backed international terrorism.