Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 66

Some six weeks after he abruptly canceled an earlier official visit to Moscow, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was scheduled today to begin two days of talks in the Russian capital. The visit is a politically sensitive one for Moscow, coming against a background of exploding tensions in the Middle East and amid intensified efforts by the Bush administration to identify Tehran as part of an “axis of evil” that threatens U.S. national interests and, increasingly, those of Israel as well. Russian diplomats are therefore expected to walk a careful line between using the visit to assert Moscow’s determination to conduct an independent foreign policy, while trying at the same time to ensure that the talks in Moscow do not undermine Kremlin efforts to build a partnership relationship with the United States, particularly in the run up to the Russian-U.S. presidential summit scheduled for late May.

Kharrazi’s unexpected eleventh-hour cancellation of a visit to Moscow that was to have started on February 19 fully illustrated the tensions that the current U.S. war on terrorism have imposed on Russian-Iranian relations. Even six weeks later it is unclear exactly why Tehran chose to postpone the February visit, but speculation has tended to center on the fact that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State John Bolton was himself just winding up a visit to Moscow at that time. Indeed, in a concluding press conference Bolton said that he had used his visit to press home Bush administration concerns over continuing Iranian-Russian cooperation. The events in Moscow led some to conclude that Kharrazi may have been reacting to a new, U.S.-inspired shift in Russia’s diplomatic posture away from Tehran. At the same time, there was talk that Kharrazi’s postponement may have reflected other problems between Russia and Iran. The most prominent are alleged frustrations on the Iranian side with the pace of Russia’s construction work at the controversial Bushehr nuclear power plant, and indications of tension between Russia and Iran on the subject of dividing up the resources of the Caspian Sea (see the Monitor, February 20).

Russian officials have nonetheless been at pains over the past few days to assert Moscow’s intention to maintain friendly ties with Iran, and in particular to go forward as planned with both construction work at the Bushehr nuclear facility and in the implementation of military-technical cooperation agreements that have been negotiated by the two countries over the past eighteen months. These Russian intentions were put most forcefully by Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov yesterday. He said that Russian-Iranian cooperation in these “sensitive areas” was transparent and in no sense a threat to nonproliferation agreements. “We intend to continue cooperation in these spheres in line with current agreements and do not think that these contracts are detrimental to anyone’s interests,” he was quoted as saying. Losyukov also discounted recent Bush administration claims that Russia is aiding Iran in the development of ballistic missiles, telling reporters that “unfounded accusations are not the best way to act.” He went on to say that “By cooperating with Iran, Russia is not pursuing any covert goals. Nor has it any secret agreements with Iran.”

Meanwhile, reports over the past week have suggested that the US$1 billion Bushehr project will occupy a prominent place on Kharrazi’s discussion agenda in Moscow. Last month there were reports of dissatisfaction in both Moscow and Tehran over Iran’s alleged failure to meet scheduled payments to Moscow on the one hand, and over Russia’s alleged failure to meet construction deadlines on the other. But late last month Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev announced Moscow’s intention to continue work at Bushehr and to have the facility up and running by 2005 (see the Monitor, March 28).

The two sides are also expected to talk arms. In November of 2000 the Russian government announced its withdrawal from a 1995 agreement that had limited Russian arms deliveries to Iran. Since then the Russian and Iranian governments have held negotiations on arms deals that various experts have said could be worth anywhere from US$4-10 billion for Russia over the next decade. In October of 2001 the two countries signed a preliminary arms accord that could reportedly bring Russia about US$400 million per year. Russia has defended the sales on the grounds that they involve only conventional weaponry that will not alter the military balance in the region.

Kharrazi is scheduled to hold talks in Moscow with his opposite number, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. He will reportedly also meet Russian State Duma speaker Gennady Seleznev and the chairman of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov. Other meetings are said also to be on the agenda, but it is perhaps significant that there has been no talk of a meeting between Kharrazi and President Vladimir Putin. Some reports this past February suggested that Kharrazi had postponed his initial visit to Moscow at least in part because of the Russian president’s unwillingness to meet with him. That appears not to have been a problem this time around (AFP, April 1, 3; IRNA, April 1; Interfax, April 1-3; Business Recorder,, April 3).

It is unclear, meanwhile, whether the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East will have any influence on Russia’s posture during the Kharrazi visit. Earlier this week Russia joined with the European Union in warning Israel not to use its war against terrorism to seek the destruction of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian leadership. That warning was part of a broader effort by the EU to seek an enhanced role for itself in bringing peace to the region. European Commission President Romano Prodi was quoted in Brussels as saying that American mediation efforts have failed. He also urged the convening of a new international conference on the Middle East, one that would bring together representatives from the EU, the United States, the UN, Russia, the moderate Arab states, the Palestinians and Israel. Like Russia, the European countries have also been generally more sympathetic than the Bush administration to the idea of pursuing friendly relations with Iran. A sustained effort by the EU to seek out a more independent international role for itself could, therefore, serve ultimately to encourage Russian defiance of the United States with respect to maintaining ties to Tehran (AP, April 2-3; AFP, April 3).