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From Russia, Without Much Love

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) shakes hands with the "mouthpiece for Iran's enemies" at an SCO summit in Yekaterinburg in June 2009.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) shakes hands with the "mouthpiece for Iran's enemies" at an SCO summit in Yekaterinburg in June 2009.
The comments would have been blistering enough if they had been aimed at one of Iran's enemies. But the country President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was excoriating as Satan's sidekick was none other than Russia, long seen by the West as the Islamic republic's staunch champion and chief bodyguard.

"Some people who are under the influence of Satan thought that if they unilaterally and illegally cancel some defense agreements they have with us, it will hurt the Iranian nation," Ahmadinejad told a rally in Bojnourd in northeastern Iran on November 3.

"I want to tell them on your behalf that we consider the deal to still be valid. They should execute it. If they don't, the Iranian people will seek its rights, the losses and the fines on it."

The "deal" he was referring to was an estimated $800 million contract for Russia to sell Iran S-300 long-range antiaircraft missiles.

The sale -- agreed in 2005 but repeatedly delayed by Russia for "technical" reasons -- was finally canceled by President Dmitry Medvedev in September in a decree formally banning the supply of the missiles and other weapons to Iran. The decision followed a long period of diplomatic cat-and-mouse during which Moscow sent mixed signals and was subjected to fierce lobbying by the United States and Israel not to fulfill the contract.

It was not the first time Iran has felt slighted by Russia, despite the two countries' presumed intimacy. A nuclear reactor at Bushehr was finally completed by Russian contractors only in August after years of delays, which Moscow explained away by citing unspecified payment difficulties but which were denounced as mere foot-dragging by Tehran.

The S-300 is a series of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
However, canceling the missile contract raised Iranian anger to fever pitch because it leaves the country's nuclear installations vulnerable to military strikes, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation specialist at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

"Without the S-300 Iran's above-ground nuclear facilities are more or less sitting ducks in respect to the sophisticated attack capabilities of countries like Israel," Fitzpatrick says. "The underground facility at Natanz is rather well-protected by a series of concrete and layers of dirt. But even that can be hit by sophisticated Israeli air strikes that can pinpoint the locations and, with repeated attacks, dig a hole and then hit again the bottom of that hole to shake up the underground facility."

According to Fitzpatrick, the S-300 "would be a good defense against such Israeli capabilities, but without that Iran is decidedly inferior."

Moscow had already expressed a dim view of previous remarks of Ahmadinejad criticizing Russia for backing a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran over its uranium-enrichment program. In July, Russia's Foreign Ministry accused Ahmadinejad of making "categorically unacceptable" comments after he accused Medvedev of becoming a "mouthpiece for Iran's enemies" in response to remarks by the Russian leader warning that Iran possessed the potential to build a nuclear bomb, a departure from Moscow's previous noncommittal stance that there was no such evidence.

Traditional View Of Russia

The rhetorical spat may come as a surprise to Western observers accustomed to viewing Russia as an Iranian ally after years of seeing it use its veto power on the UN Security Council to block and dilute sanctions over Tehran's nuclear program.

But such actions have cut little ice in Tehran, where Moscow's support for sanctions -- however weak they may be -- is viewed as a betrayal and typical of alleged Russian opportunism.

And a longer historical overview of relations between the countries suggests the recent contretemps are a reversion to type.

A Russian technician walks inside the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Iran's policymakers have long regarded Moscow with a mixture of hostility and distrust, fed by resentment over Russian annexation of Iranian territory during the 19th century and unsuccessful attempts at further dismemberment in the 20th. The Soviet Union, with which Iran shared a long border, was dubbed "the lesser Satan" (as opposed to the "Great Satan" label for the United States) by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Frosty Iran-Russia relations only thawed after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 -- the year of Khomeini's death -- and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union.

Mark Katz, a Russian foreign-policy specialist at George Mason University in Washington, D.C., says Ahmadinejad's recent outbursts reflect a visceral anti-Russian sentiment shared by many Iranians and mutually felt in Russia. While the two countries dislike each other, Katz says, each also fears the other striking up an alliance with the United States.

From the Iranian point of view, they simply regard Russia as an age-old enemy," Katz argues. "In Iranian press commentaries, even now, they bring up Russian conquests of the South Caucasus, taking Azerbaijan away from Russia. They talk about Russian intervention in the 20th century to crush the constitutional revolution. They talk about Russian and British occupation during World War II. They talk about Soviet support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. All these things are still very much with them. But what the Iranians fear is that Russia and America are going to gang up on them."

Friend Or Enemy Of My Enemy?

That fear has come true with the S-300 decision, Katz believes -- an apparent spin-off of the Obama administration's policy of "resetting" relations with Russia following a period of hostility during George W. Bush's presidency.

"In the past, the typical Russian behavior was that, we're going to sell you something, you paid us, that's fine but there are technical problems. In other words, they spun it out," Katz explains. "Now what they're saying is: No, we're not going to deliver these weapons. Why are they doing so, clearly because the Obama administration has pushed them to. The Kremlin for whatever reason has decided to go along with this.

Destined to be at odds?
"What are the Iranians to think? This is their nightmare," Katz concludes. "They have lived on Russian-American division. That has benefited them and if Russia and America are not so divided, then the Iranians are not so happy."

Some analysts are skeptical of Moscow's new hard line on Tehran and say relations between the two could easily thaw. Russia, they say, feels less threatened than the West by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. It also has a track record of playing Tehran and Washington off against each other.

Yet by attacking Russia, Ahmadinejad is bringing himself into line with opposition sentiment -- somewhat ironically, given the reasons for Moscow's recent unpopularity amongst many Iranians.

During the turmoil that followed his disputed reelection in June 2009, demonstrators in the opposition Green Movement chanted "Death to Russia" in protest at its perceived support for Ahmadinejad. Russia was the first country to formally recognize the president's victory, despite widespread accusations that the election was stolen.

Hushang Amirahmadi, president of the U.S.-based American-Iranian Council and an advocate of rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, says Ahmadinejad's recent comments are in line with a commonplace view in Iran that sees Russia -- rather than the United States -- as the natural enemy.

"Ninety percent of Iranians without any thought would immediately say our friends are Americans and our enemies are Russians," Amirahmadi says. "That's the mind-set on the streets of Tehran. Governments have been different. I think even within the government, the absolute majority would like to mend relations with the U.S. Iranians don't want to be an enemy of the Russians, but they certainly prefer the U.S."

In the meantime, Amirahmadi believes, ties between Tehran and Moscow will remain active -- if fraught -- until there is a resolution to the long-running American-Iranian standoff.

"What will happen to the Iran-Russia relationship has a lot to do with what will happen to the U.S.-Iran relationship," he says. "I think the Iranians and the Russians are going to tactically work with each other, at times in a nicer way and at other times more critically.

"But they are going to continue that relationship until the problem with the United States is settled. When that relationship is settled, I honestly believe that the Iranians are going to take a closer look at the Russians and, most likely, will reverse much of what they are doing with Russia in favor of the United States."