MOSCOW – Russia may be starting to lose patience with its wayward Middle Eastern partner Iran, with delays mounting in the delivery of long-established contracts to provide sophisticated weaponry and civilian nuclear technology to the Islamic Republic.
"Russia is sympathetic to Iran, but it's also pragmatic," says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Near East Studies in Moscow. "Moscow did not agree to be used by the Iranians as an umbrella to protect it from fallout for its irresponsible nuclear policies or its adventurism in other parts of the Middle East. Russia isn't going to be patient forever."
Russian Energy Minister Sergei Smatko announced Monday that there will be yet another delay in the completion of Bushehr, a $1-billion civilian atomic power plant that Russia's state-owed Atomstroyexport has been building in southern Iran since 1995. The contract is regarded in Moscow as an important part of the country's plan to become a major global supplier of nuclear services.
That latest delay comes on top of Russia's unexplained refusal to fulfill a two-year-old contract to supply advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran; Iran claims the first deliveries are now more than six months overdue.
"This is not about politics," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted Tuesday in response to media speculation that the Bushehr delay was calculated to compel Iran to be more agreeable in talks about its alleged drive to obtain nuclear weapons. "Technological issues are being addressed."
The project has been hit with delays for years now. Moscow began sending nuclear fuel for the plant in 2007 and, following several previous postponements, Russia's top nuclear official Sergei Kiriyenko pledged last February that Bushehr would open by the end of 2009.
But the Russians are now wringing their hands and suggesting that technical problems at the plant, which was originally designed by the German Siemens company in the 1970s, are multiplying and could force further holdups.
This combined with Moscow's failure to fulfill the S-300 contract has Iranian leaders fearing that previously reliable Russian trade ties and political support may be evaporating.
"If we wait another 200 years, the Russians will not complete the plant," news agencies quoted Iranian lawmaker Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash as saying Tuesday. "The Russians have never told the truth."
The Iranians appear especially upset over the delivery delays with the S-300, an advanced missile system that can take down high-flying aircraft at a range of nearly 100 miles. Together with the short-range Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missiles that Russia supplied two years ago the new rockets could make Iran feel immune to military threats and therefore more stubborn in its resistance to international pressure over its nuclear program, experts say.
"The S-300 would be used to defend Iranian nuclear sites, and that would greatly complicate the situation," says Mr. Satanovsky. "So Russia is sending a clear signal to Iran by withholding delivery of these weapons."
Moscow has long differed with the US over how to deal with Iran. But Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who had his fourth face-to-face meeting with US President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Singapore on Sunday, has suggested that Moscow is increasingly unhappy with Iran's conduct in international negotiations over its nuclear program.
"Over the past few weeks, Iran has shown a lot of obstinacy and intractability and this irritates Russian authorities," says Vladimir Sazhin, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. "Our president has more than once indicated that Russia could join a tough sanctions regime."
The Kremlin has often argued that its role as friend and arms supplier affords it unique leverage over Tehran that could make Russia an indispensable mediator between Iran and the West. But some experts wonder whether Russian businesses, including powerful state nuclear and arms-export monopolies, have been letting their commercial interests trump political wisdom.
"I think Russia is at a crossroads where it really wants to join together with the US, because Iranian policies are so unpredictable," says Alexei Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But military cooperation is a big deal and the arms industries are very strong. At this point, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin may be clinging to Russia's special position vis à vis Iran mainly as a way of saving face," he argues.