Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 36

The unexpected postponement of a visit to Moscow by Iran’s foreign minister yesterday put relations between Russia and Iran back in the headlines and raised questions as to whether the Kremlin’s longtime support for Tehran may be wavering. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi had been expected to arrive in the Russian capital yesterday for two days of talks that included a meeting with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and, according to one Russian source, another with President Vladimir Putin. The visit was postponed, however, at literally the last minute, and for vague reasons that official sources in Tehran at least suggested were primarily technical. An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, for example, was quoted as saying in Tehran yesterday that the postponement was due to difficulties in organizing Kharrazi’s Moscow agenda. A Russian Foreign Ministry source, on the other hand, suggested that somewhat more substantive problems may have been behind the postponement. Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said in a brief statement that the delay had been caused by a “need to work out certain questions of bilateral cooperation” (Reuters, Itar-Tass/ACSNA/IRNA, Interfax, February 19).

Yesterday’s developments took on greater significance, of course, because they come in the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush’s January 29 State-of-the-Union speech in which he labeled Iran–along with Iraq and North Korea–as part of an “axis of evil” whose weapons development programs pose an urgent threat to the United States. Bush’s speech has thrown a spotlight on the friendly relations that Moscow maintains with all three of those countries, and presumably presages what will be a new and intensified push by Washington to rein in military and nuclear cooperation between Moscow and Tehran.

Indeed, it was perhaps no accident that yesterday’s postponement came as U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton wound up two days of talks of his own in the Russian capital. According to the Kremlin-connected website, Bolton said pointedly during a press conference yesterday that he had used his trip to Moscow to convey to Russian leaders the Bush administration’s concerns about Iranian-Russian cooperation. In Tehran, meanwhile, and in some Russian press reports, there was speculation that Kharrazi had postponed his visit precisely because he did not want to be in the Russian capital at the same time as Bolton. Some sources pointed back to an incident last fall, when Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani also postponed a visit to Moscow at the eleventh hour, in this case because Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had arrived there for hastily arranged talks (see the Monitor, September 4, October 4, 2001;, DPA, February 19).

But yesterday’s developments appear nevertheless to have been especially awkward for Moscow. The Russian daily Vremya Novostei–which, like many other Russian sources, suggested that the Iranian side had been responsible for the postponement–reported that Kharrazi’s action had caught the Russian Foreign Ministry completely by surprise. The newspaper said that this was all the more bewildering because preparations for Kharrazi’s arrival had begun much earlier, and that the visit was in fact a follow-up to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov’s November 1999 visit to Tehran. “It is difficult to recall,” the newspaper said, “when Moscow was last put in such an uncomfortable position at a moment when negotiations were set to start.” This may not have told the whole story, however. On February 18, the day before Kharrazi’s expected departure, Interfax quoted Russian diplomatic sources as saying that the program for Kharrazi’s visit had still not been decided in full (Interfax, February 18; Vremya Novostei, February 20).

If yesterday’s postponement is in fact the result of any new hesitancy on Moscow’s part in terms of dealing with Iran, then that would mark a major shift in Russian policy. Indeed, in the days since Bush’s “axis of evil” speech, senior Russian officials appear to have gone out of their way to make clear their belief that Iran should not be targeted so directly by the United States, and that Russia has no intention of limiting its ties to Iran over the American concerns. To cite just a few examples, those reaffirmations of Iranian-Russian friendship came in a remark by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during talks with NATO ministers in Rome on February 4–“With Iran we have normal trade relations… small arms trade and we will not stop,” he was quoted as saying–and in an assertion by Deputy Nuclear Energy Minister Valery Lebedev on February 14 that Russia intends to complete its work at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant. The United States has been especially critical of the Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation at Bushehr, charging that Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons will be aided by the cooperation (Reuters, February 4; AP, February 14).

The Russian president’s office, moreover, appeared earlier this month to substantiate Iranian claims that preparations are now underway for President Vladimir Putin to visit Tehran sometime in the first half of this year. The visit, which Iran’s ambassador to Russia said would “further widen the parameters of interaction between our two neighboring countries,” would follow up a Russian-Iranian summit which was held in Moscow last March (Interfax, February 6).

The Kremlin may have lost some of its enthusiasm for an early summit with the Iranian leadership, however. The Vremya Novostei daily observed in a commentary published on the eve of Kharrazi’s expected departure for Moscow that the sudden hardening in Washington’s line toward Iran had left Russian leaders in something of a quandary. “Moscow does not consider Iran to be an ‘evil’ state,” the newspaper said. But it is now necessary for Russia to proceed “with redoubled caution in balancing between” an America gearing for battle and those states which have been labeled as “rogues” by Washington. Indeed, the newspaper went on, there’s a new reticence in Moscow to endanger post-September 11 Russian-U.S. cooperation by scheduling a summit meeting between Putin and the Iranian leadership (Vremya Novostei, February 19).

What yesterday’s developments say about the current state of Iranian-Russian relations, in other words, remains unclear. In a telephone conversation with Kharrazi that reportedly followed immediately on the announcement of yesterday’s postponement, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was said to have expressed his regrets and to have affirmed that a new date for the visit will be set in the near future. The Iranian embassy in Moscow conveyed much the same message to reporters. Those reports at least suggest that yesterday’s postponement does not signify the eruption of a significant rift between Moscow and Tehran. That Iranian-Russian cooperation is still on track was also suggested by another apparently friendly meeting that did take place yesterday in Moscow–this one devoted to disarmament and proliferation issues and involving a Russian deputy foreign minister and the Iranian ambassador (IRNA, Interfax, February 19).

At present, the Russian and Iranian foreign ministers are next scheduled to meet at a gathering of Caspian Sea littoral countries in Moscow on February 26-28. The legal status of the Caspian Sea is one set of issues which divides Moscow and Tehran, and the interaction between the two countries on February 26-28–not to mention the lengths that they go to prior to that event to reschedule the Kharrazi visit–should give a better indication of exactly what the dynamics between Iran and Russia are at the present moment.