Russia, Iran harden against West
In a historic first visit to Iran, Russian President Putin affirmed support for Tehran's nuclear program and rebuffed any militarization in the Caspian region.
The diplomatic fireworks were few. But the sheer presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin in Iran Tuesday has hardened both Moscow's and Tehran's strategies of confronting the West, as he reinforced support for the Islamic Republic and its nuclear program.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Putin told a summit of five Caspian Sea nations, "We should not even think of using force in this region" – a veiled warning to the US not to strike Iran. But the Russian leader also sought a delicate balance on the nuclear issue, after a week of rebuffing top American officials over Washington's missile defense plans for Europe, and despite French and German leaders' hopes for a tougher line against Iran.
"From Iran's vantage point, this could not have come at a better time to drastically improve the geostrategic climate in Iran's favor, when Iran is under escalating pressure from the US and some allies," says Kaveh Afrasiabi, an Iran expert at Bentley College near Boston. "This summit works as an antidote to these pressures."
Putin reassured Iran that the Bushehr nuclear reactor, a $1 billion energy project being built by Russia and dogged by delays, would be completed. But he refused to say when Russia might supply the needed nuclear fuel. Russia opposes a third round of UN sanctions against Iran unless presented with proof of a secret atomic weapons program.
"This [Putin] visit is a PR visit with an accent of propaganda," says Alexey Malashenko, a Russia and Islam specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "I don't think the Americans are afraid of this, because they understand Russia really is against the possibility of creation of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Indeed, it's very dangerous for Russia."
In Washington, officials noted that Russia has already taken part in two unanimous UN Security Council votes to place modest sanctions on Iran for not suspending uranium enrichment efforts – a process to make nuclear fuel for power reactors that can be enhanced to make weapons-grade fissile material.
"I don't think the Russian government has been, in any way, shape, or form, trying to encourage Iran's nuclear developments," said Tom Casey, a State Department spokesman. "In fact, they've been very concerned about it."
While stated US policy remains a diplomatic path, Bush administration officials continue to talk tough against Iran. "With a government of this nature, only a united front of nations will be able to exert enough pressure to make Iran abandon its nuclear aspirations," US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs in Washington this week. While pitching more sanctions, he also said: "With this regime, we must also keep all options on the table."
Putin received a red carpet welcome in Tehran, meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme religious leader Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei – rare for any non-Muslim leader. Reuters quoted state television reporting that Putin had asked for "deeper" ties with Iran; weapons sales and a commercial aircraft deal were also high on the Russian agenda.
"We must not see this as a zero-sum game," says Mr. Afrasiabi, a former adviser to Iran's nuclear negotiating team. "It would be sheer error on the part of US officials to berate President Putin for this trip to Iran, and extending an olive branch to the Iranian leadership … given the fact that Russia has been influential in steering Iran toward greater cooperation with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] to answer key questions."
In a joint statement, the two presidents noted the "closeness" of their positions "over the key world questions," and the "necessity of solving as quickly as possible the situation over the Iranian nuclear program through politics and diplomacy."