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Two to tango: Why Iran turns dance partners into enemies

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has rebuffed a string of potential allies from Canada to Britain and now Russia. Why? An outside enemy helps revolutionary regimes consolidate power.

By Staff writer / March 19, 2010

An Iranian nuclear-power-plant operator (r.) worked with a Russian expert at Iran’s Bushehr power plant last fall. Despite such collaboration, diplomatic relations between the countries have become tense.



Istanbul, Turkey

On the diplomatic balance sheet, Iran and Russia should be best friends.

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Russia is building Iran's first nuclear power reactor – a $1 billion project. It signed a contract to provide S-300 air defense missiles to Tehran. And as Iran's diplomatic isolation enters its fourth decade, Moscow stands out as a past defender of the Islamic Republic that can veto sanctions.

And yet, Iran-Russian relations have soured, with Russia now likely to support new United Nations sanctions against Iran – the latest in a string of examples of Tehran turning potential allies into enemies since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

IN PICTURES: Iran's Islamic Revolution

"As they say, 'It takes two to tango,' and in the case of Iran, it has shown again and again that it doesn't know how to dance," says Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran specialist at Syracuse University, who sums up the past 30 years of Iranian diplomacy as "statecraft by trial and error."

The result in key cases has been turning off, angering, or provoking potential friends from the slim list of countries that have sought to engage Tehran. While the specifics have varied from Canada to Britain and now Russia, the pattern is familiar. To divert the attention of critics at home – a task that became nearly impossible in the wake of the disputed June 2009 election – the revolutionary state has sought to direct that anger outward.

"Revolutions need an outside enemy as a way of consolidating the power of the new regime, forcing people to rally around the flag," says Professor Boroujerdi. "Whenever the state has failed – be it [due to] managerial ineptitude or flip-flopping on declared positions – the government uses the notion of an outside enemy."

Kremlin's rocky history in Persia

With Russia, trust has always been in short supply. The Kremlin's rocky imperial history in Persia stretches back centuries, and includes occupation with British and US forces during World War II.

But it was still a surprise when President Ahma­din­ejad this month gave all Russian pilots working for Iranian commercial airlines two months' notice to leave Iran after a Russian-made plane with a Russian crew caught fire on landing in January.

Further, Iranian officials have openly criticized Russia's delay in sending the S-300 missiles, a deal done in 1995, and multi-year delays in completing the Bushehr reactor.