Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 55

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami wound up a high-profile four-day visit to Russia last week. It began on March 12 with summit talks between Khatami and Russian President Vladimir Putin and concluded on March 16 with a joint statement reiterating the intention of the two countries to increase their cooperation still further. In between those two events Khatami addressed the State Duma, toured a Russian space center just outside of Moscow, visited a St. Petersburg factory and flew to the city of Kazan–in the mostly Muslim republic of Tatarstan–to observe a mosque under construction. Earlier Khatami had attended prayers with a Russian Islamic leader and 300 fellow worshippers at Moscow’s central Mosque. Throughout the four-day visit and in its immediate aftermath both Khatami and top Russian officials defended improved Russian-Iranian relations from criticism voiced in Washington.

The highlights of Khatami’s visit had symbolic as well as substantive importance. The summit talks with Putin, for example, reflected the growing partnership between the two countries and underscored their apparent determination to continue drawing closer together despite protests and threats of sanctions from the United States. On the substantive side, the meeting produced two agreements: one reconfirming Russia’s intention to finish construction work at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant and the other formalizing a recent Russian decision to resume the sale of military hardware to Iran. Khatami’s appearance at the Izhorsk plant in St. Petersburg was likewise both symbolic and pragmatic. The plant is involved in manufacturing the reactor for the Bushehr facility, and Khatami reportedly observed production workers polishing the reactor core destined for Iran. At the space control center in Korolev, meanwhile, a top Russian aerospace official said that Khatami’s visit underscored the intention of the two countries to cooperate in the field of space and aviation. He also suggested that Moscow hoped to help Iran “develop high-tech industries and join in all areas of scientific and technical progress.” During his visit to the mosque in Moscow, Khatami praised what he said was the Russian government’s religious tolerance. He made no mention of Moscow’s bloody seventeen-month war against Islamic rebels in Chechnya.

In a joint statement issued at the close of Khatami’s visit, the Russian and Iranian delegations reiterated the intention of their two countries to cooperate in both the nuclear and military fields. They also pledged, in the first case, to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, in the second, to ensure that their military-technical cooperation is not directed against third countries. In addition, they announced that they had signed several more agreements, including one involving construction of a thermal power station at Tabas and another on the development of a geostationary telecommunications satellite for civilian users. They also reportedly discussed establishing a standing body which would be tasked with coordinating bilateral projects, especially, reports said, in aircraft construction and in the oil and gas industries. Most significant, perhaps, the Iranians reportedly committed themselves at the close of Khatami’s visit to an agreement by which Russia will build a second reactor for the Bushehr facility. The agreement suggested that the two countries had overcome a spat about the performance of Russian construction teams at the Bushehr plant. A high-ranking Iranian energy official had complained on the eve of Khatami’s arrival in Moscow that construction at Bushehr was well behind schedule (Monitor, March 12; New York Times, Washington Post, Izvestia, March 13; AP, Reuters, March 12-15; AFP, March 14, 16).