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Middle East: Analysis From Washington -- A Russian-Iranian Rapprochement

Washington, 3 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia and Iran have upgraded their military-to-military ties, a move that represents both a response to growing Western influence in the countries of the southern Caucasus and a challenge to the existing balance in the Middle East.

The head of the Russian Defense Ministry's International Military Cooperation Department, Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, this week led the first Russian military delegation to Tehran since 1991. Following meetings with senior Iranian officials, he and his hosts announced their intention to move toward what they called "planned military cooperation."

That cooperation, press accounts suggested, will build on already close Russian-Iranian ties and will include regular consultations between the staffs of armed forces of the two countries on both military questions and political issues of common concern. And among the results of this visit alone was an invitation from the Russian side for Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to visit Moscow in the near future.

But both sides clearly view these expanded ties as having a far larger meaning than simple consultations: In his remarks to the media, Ivashov suggested that Moscow and Tehran are now able not only "to determine the common menace to the security of our two states" but also to agree on "methods for its neutralization."

Iranian officials have noted the ways in which such cooperation will contribute to a further expansion of Russian involvement in the construction of nuclear power facilities at Bushehr, cooperation that many analysts have suggested could allow Tehran to build nuclear weapons.

These talks appear to have focused on three such threats: from expanded U.S. and NATO involvement in the countries of the southern Caucasus, from the existing balance of power in the Middle East, and from the uncertain developments in Afghanistan.

Russian press commentaries recently have become more explicit about how Moscow and Tehran view the situation in the southern Caucasus. They suggest that the two countries are "disturbed" by efforts of the United States and NATO to expand their influence in the region and to "exert influence" on conflicts there, including resolution of the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Indeed, the very timing of Ivashov's trip to Tehran underscores these concerns: Last week, Washington hosted both Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev for separate talks about, respectively, that conflict and expanded American military cooperation with Baku.

Moreover, on Friday, Iranian ambassador to Russia Mehdi Safari told the Moscow newspaper "Vek" that Western plans for constructing a pipeline under the Caspian Sea reflected political rather than economic calculations and that "Iran and Russia are categorically opposed" to such a pipeline as well as to "the transportation of gas to Europe via Azerbaijan and Turkey."

The meeting between defense officials from the two countries by itself also represents a challenge to the existing power relationships in the Middle East.

Not only does it challenge the cooperative relationship between Israel, Turkey, and the United States by creating an alternative axis of power, but it signals that Moscow may try to use its ties with Iran to expand their participation in security discussions across that region.

Indeed, lest anyone miss that aspect of the meeting's message, Iran's official news agency IRNA noted that the talks were taking place "despite deep concern by the United States and Israel.

But in addition, the two sides also discussed an issue which concerns them both but for which neither has found an adequate response. That is the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and the potential that instability, terrorism, and drugs from there may spread to Iran, Russia, or Russia's Central Asian allies.

Iran currently is trying to tighten its border with Afghanistan. Russia has warned that it has even considered air strikes against Afghan targets. But neither country seems to have found an answer to the ideological challenge presented by Afghanistan's Taliban.

Now, the two countries are likely to be discussing that as well. But it remains to be seen whether this and the other challenges they both agree on will outweigh the cultural and political factors which often have left Russia and Iran at odds.