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.
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."
Analysts say Iran hopes the summit will help shift its nuclear dossier from the Security Council to the normal purview of the UN's nuclear watchdog agency. Last week, Putin said, "We have no real data to claim that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, which makes us believe the country has no such plans."
Still, Iran has accused Russia of caving in to the West, and dragging its feet on completion of Bushehr. In turn, Moscow has accused Iran of being slow on payments – a charge Iran denies – and has delayed the start-up of the power reactor planned for this fall.
And amid the controversy over the final intent of Iran's program, there has been little progress on a deal to ship Russian nuclear fuel – or fuel from a joint Iranian-Russian program on Russian soil – to the Bushehr reactor. Moscow says that will happen six months before the reactor goes on line.
When pressed on the timing of the opening, Putin told Iranian reporters, "I only gave promises to my mom when I was a small boy."
The visit underscores an increasingly similar global outlook between the two nations.
"Growing anxiety about the post-9/11 US interventionist and militarist policies … explains the lion's share of why we witness President Putin in Tehran," says Afrasiabi. "That is the binding factor between Iran and Russia, both of which are objects of coercive diplomacy by the US today."
Indeed, Putin has reacted strongly to US plans to deploy a missile-defense system in eastern Europe. In July he notified NATO that Russia was pulling out of a cold-war treaty to limit conventional forces in Europe, and in August relaunching long-range strategic bomber patrols.
After complaining this summer that the US "overstepped its national borders in every way," last week Putin rebuked both US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, in Moscow: "We may decide someday to put missile defense systems on the moon, but before we get to that we may lose a chance for agreement because of you implementing your own plans."
In Iran, right-leaning newspapers hailed the visit as a breakthrough. "Maybe the most important result of Putin's trip is to show the independence of Russia toward America and the West," wrote Kayhan. Jomhuri Islami highlighted a "deep difference of opinion between Russia on the one side and America and France on the other side in dealing with Iran's nuclear case."
Such a reception is worlds away from Tehran's past ties with Moscow. The last Russian leader to visit Tehran in 1943 was Josef Stalin, in a World War II meeting with fellow Allied leaders Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. During the cold war, Iran, led by the pro-Western shah, was in the American orbit.
A decade after the 1979 Islamic revolution – when the Soviet Union was excoriated in Iran almost as much as the US and Israel were – Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini wrote his first-ever letter to a head of state, telling Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that communism was dead and that he should “study Islam earnestly.”
Today, the two countries have much to talk about, but mutual suspicions remain, enough for some analysts to call Moscow-Tehran ties as more business than a close alliance. Speculation in Iran before the visit, that Mr. Ahmadinejad wanted to forge a strategic link between the two nations – as he has done with anti-US leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – may prove premature.
"What I know is there is no strategic alliance between Russia and Iran, and that is forever, and for a lot of reasons," says Mr. Malashenko. "The main one is that Iran considers Russia a part of the Western world, of Europe, of Christianity."