Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 55

While it is clear that Khatami’s visit did mark an important stage in the effort by both Tehran and Moscow to improve bilateral relations, the talks appear nonetheless to have left several key issues unresolved. Some observers had been expecting in the weeks leading up to Khatami’s arrival, for example, that the two countries might actually sign a “strategic partnership” agreement like the one Moscow has now concluded with India and China. That sort of speculation has also been tied to a belief among some that Moscow is in some fashion trying to create a Moscow-New Delhi-Beijing-Tehran axis to stand in opposition to the United States and NATO. In the event, such hopes were not fulfilled. The Iranian-Russian political agreement signed during the March 12 summit meeting was instead a fairly standard cooperation accord, and Russian officials in particular appeared to be careful to avoid any mention of the term strategic partnership in connection with it. In addition, the two sides appeared to make little progress in resolving what has been perhaps the most divisive issue in their bilateral relations–division of the Caspian Sea–although the issue did get some attention in the final Russian-Iranian joint communique (Al-Sharq al-Awsat [London], December 29; New York Times, Washington Post, Izvestia, March 13; AP, Reuters, March 12-15; RFERL, March 14).

The two sides also failed to sign any specific arms sales agreements, but it is unclear whether that reflected significant differences on the issue or simply the fact that negotiations in this area are still at an early stage. One probable unresolved issue involves the manner in which Iran will pay for any new Russian arms purchases. Moscow is presumably pushing for a payment scheme weighted in favor of Iranian cash payments to Russia. Iran, on the other hand, is likely to be seeking an arrangement which relies more heavily on barter deals, particularly one which would involve the delivery to Russia of Iranian crude oil for resale.

Whatever problems might still be left to resolve, however, most observers are suggesting that Russia and Iran are likely to begin signing arms agreements this summer. And those deals could be very lucrative for Russian arms makers–if these same observers are to be believed–perhaps amounting to as much as US$7 billion over roughly the next five years. If so, that would suggest that Russian arms deliveries to Iran will resume at the pace which existed in the first half of the 1990s, when, according to Russian sources, Moscow sold some US$5 billion worth of military hardware to Tehran (a portion of it actually manufactured in Iran under Russian license) (Segodnya, March 15).

Despite such promising prospects and the more general rhetoric of Russian-Iranian friendship which emanated from Moscow during Khatami’s visit, there nevertheless are some potential potholes on the road to increased cooperation. One of these is the fact that the two countries are themselves regional rivals. But perhaps the most obvious potential impediment to an Iranian-Russian partnership is opposition from the United States, which made it clear throughout Khatami’s visit that Washington is continuing to keep a close eye on cooperation between the two countries in the nuclear and defense arenas. Having already downgraded relations with Russia generally, the Bush administration has also signaled a greater willingness than its predecessor to turn to punitive actions in the event that Iranian-Russian defense and nuclear cooperation intensifies. That message was reemphasized yesterday when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell used an address before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to warn that Washington would respond if Moscow and Tehran engaged in any actions likely to destabilize the Middle East. Powell said that Washington would not turn a blind eye to repression by the Iranian government or to arms sales by Moscow to Tehran. U.S. lawmakers, meanwhile, have put pressure of their own on the White House. More than two dozen House members last week urged President George W. Bush to consider suspending U.S. aid to Russia in response to the Iranian-Russian agreement to resume arms trading (AP, March 15; AFP, March 16, 19).

Of course, the Kremlin expected U.S. opposition to the Russian-Iranian accords. It attempted to allay U.S. concerns both by dispatching Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov to Washington (see the Monitor, March 16) and by emphasizing in official statements Moscow’s need to work with Iran in order to resolve tensions along Russia’s southern border (Reuters, March 14). Russian officials also reiterated earlier assurances that any weapons systems sold to Iran would be purely “defensive” in nature.

What the Kremlin may not have expected, however, was a small groundswell of critical opinion within Russia over the results and potential consequences of last week’s Iranian-Russian talks. Indeed, one these critics, security analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, argued that Tehran had outplayed Moscow during Khatami’s visit. He suggested that the offer to buy Russian arms had in itself given Iran some leverage over broader Russian foreign policy, and that the Iranians and Russia’s own arms export lobby had worked together deliberately to put Moscow on a collision course with Washington. Other critics also warned that the Kremlin’s current policy toward Iran is dangerous because it risks a full rupture in relations between Russia and the United States.

These same critics also raised another possibility: that arms sold by Russia to Tehran could ultimately wind up being turned against Russia’s own soldiers. This warning is especially interesting, highlighting as it does both an awareness of the fragility of Khatami’s political authority in Iran and the possibility that the more hardline fundamentalists who stand behind him could one day make use of the weaponry bought from Moscow to stir up trouble on Russia’s southern border–or among Russia’s own Muslim population. Indeed, this argument goes right to the heart of one of the major contradictions in Russian foreign policy today: its emphasis, in light of the Caucasus war, on the need to battle what it calls international terrorism, and its simultaneous efforts to pursue friendly relations with some of those same countries which are seen by many in the West to be sponsors of terrorist activities (New York Times, March 16; Segodnya, March 15; Izvestia, March 14).