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Russia/Iran: Analysis From Washington -- The Roots Of Rapprochement

Washington, 22 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russia increasingly views Iran as a potentially important ally in three key areas, but in every one of them, Moscow's cooperation with Tehran puts the Russian government at odds not only with the United States and Turkey but also with the post-Soviet states of Central Asia and the Caucasus.

And to the extent that Moscow seeks to extract additional resources from the West or to maintain ties with the southern members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, it must sometimes play down or otherwise restrict its cooperation with Iran in certain areas such as its ties to Iran's growing nuclear power industry.

But such actions in no way change Moscow's calculations about the continuing utility of Iran in achieving Russia's foreign policy goals. And consequently, any concessions to the West that Primakov may announce on nuclear issues are likely to be balanced by Russian efforts to firm up its links with Iran in other areas.

That is the message of an article about Russian-Iranian relations that appears in the current issue of the prestigious Russian foreign policy journal, "International Affairs." Written by Viktor Vishniakov, chairman of the Russian Duma's Subcommittee for Issues of International Law, the article suggests that Russia views Iran "as a potential ally in many of the most important areas" of Moscow's foreign policy.

First of all, Vishniakov says, Moscow sees Iran as playing a key role in Central Asia and the Caucasus: It does not challenge Russia's role there. It opposes any expansion of Turkish influence in the region. And it generally shares Moscow's views on the status of the Caspian Sea and hence on possible pipeline routes carrying oil and gas from these regions to the West."

Consequently, Iran helps Moscow to shore up its influence in these regions by helping both to prevent these countries from gaining the wealth and independence that exports would give them and to block the introduction of Western influence into a region that Moscow continues to view as its proper sphere of influence.

Second, the Duma leader argues, Moscow views Iran as another aggrieved outsider state that will join with Russia in opposing American power. Drawing on the ideas of nineteenth century Russian Foreign Minister Aleksandr Gorchakov, ideas that Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov has said should guide Russia's approach now, Vishniakov says that such an alliance will allow Russia to rebuild its power on the international stage."

While Vishniakov himself does not make much of this particular argument, he doesn't have to. Three other articles in the same issue of "International Affairs" are entirely devoted to Gorchakov -- including one by Russia's current foreign minister Igor Ivanov -- and at least three more make reference to the nineteenth century prince who is rapidly becoming the Russian foreign policy theorist for the 21st century.

And third, and this is where Vishniakov devotes most of his attention, Russia values Iran both for "cooperation in developing modern technologies" -- a euphemism for nuclear power -- and as a customer of Russian military equipment. Iranian purchasing of such military products, he says, "makes it possible to enhance Russia's role in solving regional problems."

Indeed, Vishniakov opens his article with the claim that Russia's expanding ties with Iran are responsible for Tehran's willingness to explore closer ties with Baghdad's Saddam Hussein, ties which Vishniakov says will contribute to regional stability but which many countries, including the United States, are likely to see as pointing in a very different direction.

But however that may be, Vishniakov suggests that Iranian purchases of Russian military equipment and expertise in nuclear power can help Russia rebuild, providing Moscow with both the cash and cooperation it needs to overcome its current economic difficulties.

And lest any third country think it can block the expansion of Russian-Iranian ties by extracting one or another concession, Vishniakov warns as the Duma did last year that Moscow will view such "attempts to meddle in mutually advantageous cooperation between Russia and Iran in economic, science and technology and other areas" as both "unlawful" and "unacceptable."