Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 68

In an apparent indication of Moscow’s continued unwillingness to satisfy U.S. demands that it distance itself from Tehran, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a warm welcome to Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi on April 5. Kharrazi’s reception in the Kremlin was the high point of a two-day visit in which the two countries both implicitly and explicitly rejected the Bush administration’s characterization of Iran as one of three countries comprising an “axis of evil” that threatens both U.S. and international security.

Indeed, Kharrazi’s arrival in Russia came on the same day that U.S. President George W. Bush blasted Iran during an address in which he announced his intention to dispatch U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Middle East. But while Bush accused Tehran of fueling the flames in the worsening Middle East conflict, both Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Putin himself suggested a mere twenty-four hours later that Iran was in fact playing a positive role in the region. Ivanov spoke in this context of Russian-Iranian cooperation as an important factor in providing peace and stability in the region, while Putin pointed to what he said was the “very important role” that Iran is playing in Central Asia and the Middle East. Ivanov went further, moreover, calling Bush’s characterization of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil” a remnant of Cold War thinking and a notion better left behind.

In an implicit rejection of U.S. threats to attack Iraq, moreover, Ivanov also used his visit with Kharrazi to reemphasize Russia’s insistence that any use of force in the war against terror first receive the sanction of the UN Security Council. “No country has the right to resort to such measures without the UN Security Council’s sanction,” Ivanov was quoted as saying. More broadly, the Russian minister was quoted as saying that “on a wide array of international issues” the positions of Iran and Russia are “either close or coincide.” This, Ivanov continued, “creates a good base for the coordination of our efforts in the international arena.”

The red carpet treatment the Kremlin accorded Kharrazi (it was unclear in the run up to Kharrazi’s visit whether Putin would grant him a meeting) and the rhetoric produced during last week’s talks were an important symbolic representation of continued Iranian-Russian friendship. But it was unclear if the two sides accomplished much of more practical value during their meetings. Kharrazi and Ivanov did exchange ratification documents on a pair of accords, one of them an agreement on basic relations and principles of cooperation that was signed during a visit to Moscow last March by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.

But there were no announcements last week of any developments in two of the areas of greatest concern to Washington: Iranian-Russian nuclear and military-technical cooperation. In a speech delivered at Moscow’s Diplomatic Academy on April 4, Kharrazi did say that he hoped to persuade Russia to incorporate additional reactors in the nuclear power plant that Moscow is building at the controversial Bushehr site in Iran. But those negotiations are not new, and it was unclear at the close of last week’s talks if the two sides had made any progress either in finalizing that deal, or in resolving alleged differences related to the plant construction itself. Washington has long criticized Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation on the grounds that it could contribute to Tehran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

There was likewise little to suggest that the two sides had made any progress in finalizing specific arms deals reached under a broader framework agreement signed last October. Those deals could be very lucrative for Russia, but that they have not yet been finalized has led some analysts to suggest that Moscow may be moving slowly so as to avoid antagonizing Washington. Senior Russian officials nevertheless continued to insist last week that Iran-Russian cooperation has assisted neither Iran’s missile nor its nuclear weapons programs. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for example, was quoted in Greece as saying that such allegations were “nothing but a myth” and that Moscow would continue to sell conventional weaponry to Iran. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov (no relation) stated similarly that, despite all its allegations, the United States had yet to supply specific information proving that Russia was leaking sensitive technologies to Iran. “If someone is concerned, we’re ready to consider this,” Ivanov said on April 5, “not if it’s words, but specific facts. And we haven’t gotten these.”

In his April 4 address to the Diplomatic Academy, Kharrazi reportedly lamented the fact that Iranian-Russian relations had yet to achieve a “strategic” quality. In fact, last week’s Iranian-Russian talks appeared to maintain the status quo between the two countries–friendly relations but still limited cooperation–with no obvious attempt by Moscow to push ties to a higher level. And given that Kharrazi had abruptly and unexpectedly postponed a visit to Moscow this past February amid rumors of new strains between Russia and Iran (see the Monitor, April 4), last week’s talks were probably not without significance. But Moscow may at this point be biding its time, waiting to see how next month’s Russian-U.S. summit meeting turns out while at the same time monitoring how events in the increasingly volatile Middle East, Persian Gulf and south Asia develop (AP, April 4-5; AFP, Reuters, Itar-Tass, Interfax,, April 5).