Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 58

Quoting unnamed “diplomatic sources,” Russia’s Interfax news agency reported yesterday that an earlier cancelled visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi to Moscow has been rescheduled for the first week of April. Kharrazi had originally been scheduled to visit the Russian capital on February 19-20. The eleventh-hour decision to postpone the event appeared to catch Moscow by surprise. It also led to speculation that new tensions had emerged between Moscow and Tehran in the wake of U.S President George W. Bush’s January 29 State-of-the-Union speech in which Iran was said to be part of an “axis of evil”–along with Iraq and North Korea–and thus a threat to U.S. security. Indeed, the postponement of Kharrazi’s visit came as U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton was winding up two days of talks of his own in Moscow, talks that were said to have included fresh expressions of the Bush administration’s concerns over Iranian-Russian defense and nuclear cooperation.

The claim yesterday that Kharrazi’s visit will occur next month came from unofficial sources and appears, initially at least, to have been neither confirmed by official sources nor picked up by other news agencies. But the Interfax report said that Kharrazi would meet with his counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, and other top Russian government officials. The report also said that the discussion agenda for Kharrazi’s visit was a broad one that would include talks not only on a wide range of international issues but also on areas of Iranian-Russian bilateral cooperation including, significantly enough, nuclear energy and arms. Yesterday’s report follows comments by Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko made earlier this week in which he insisted that Moscow would continue to seek closer ties with its neighbors, including Iran (see the Monitor, February 20; Interfax, March 21; IRNA, March 17).

Yesterday’s report would seem to be a significant development–regardless of whether it ultimately proves accurate. With a summit meeting between Presidents Bush and Vladimir Putin scheduled for May, disagreements between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s friendly relations with Iran are likely to draw increasing attention. To date, Russian officials have insisted that they will continue to pursue both military technical and nuclear cooperation with Tehran, regardless of Washington’s objections. Some had speculated after Kharrazi’s postponed visit in February, however, that Moscow might finally be backing off from this position. If Kharrazi’s visit is indeed officially scheduled for early April, that would suggest the Kremlin is inclined to maintain its defiance of American wishes in this area. If, on the other hand, the scheduling of the visit is not confirmed or the visit itself does not come off, that would signal to many that Moscow is indeed rethinking its policy toward Iran. It might also mean that the diplomatic sources quoted in yesterday’s report were speaking out of turn, and that their comments may reflect divisions within Russia’s foreign policymaking elite over Moscow’s posture toward Tehran and, by extension, toward the United States.