Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 160

Russian efforts to continue improving bilateral ties with Iran while reinventing itself as a more even-handed player in the broader Middle East peace process suffered a setback yesterday when Iran’s defense chief unexpectedly postponed a visit to Moscow. Admiral Ali Shamkhani was to have begun four days of talks with top Russian officials today, but reports out of Tehran and Moscow late yesterday indicated that the Iranian government had chosen at the last moment to postpone the visit. Official sources provided no information as to when it might be rescheduled, and a senior Foreign Ministry official in Tehran was quoted as saying only that he hoped the visit would take place soon.

News sources indicated yesterday that the reason for the postponement was the Iran’s disinclination to have Shamkhani in Moscow while Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is there. The Israeli leader is beginning a hastily arranged three-day visit to Russia that is to include a meeting today with President Vladimir Putin. Sharon’s visit is a reflection of both improving ties between Russia and Israel and the more balanced approach that Moscow is now taking toward the hostilities in the Middle East. Where previously–and particularly during the Soviet era–Moscow had strongly backed Arab governments, the Kremlin is now seeking closer ties with Israel at the same time that it is lining up with the United States and the European Union behind ceasefire proposals in the Mitchell plan. This recasting of policy appears aimed at reclaiming some of the influence Moscow had in the Middle East during the Cold War, which has declined drastically since the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

But one of the seeming contradictions in Russia’s current Middle East policy is its continued embrace of Tehran. Shamkhani’s visit was expected to move Moscow and Tehran further along the road toward a controversial package of arms deals that Russian sources have estimated could earn Moscow some US$300-US$500 million annually over at least the next several years. One of the primary reasons for Sharon’s visit to Moscow, not coincidentally, is to persuade the Kremlin to forego the arms sales to regional rival Iran in favor of improved trade and defense ties with Israel. Sharon will likewise be trying to convince the Kremlin both to halt nuclear cooperation with Iran and to stop the transfer of Russian missile technologies to the Iranians. Both Washington and Jerusalem have long pressured Moscow on precisely these points, but without any significant success. Were Sharon to make progress on any of these issues during his visit, it would signal a sharp turn by Moscow in its Middle Eastern policy–but this is unlikely.

The Russian arms negotiations with Iran have also been a sore spot in relations between Moscow and Washington, though they are one that the Bush administration has in recent months soft-pedaled as part of its effort to procure Moscow’s acceptance of U.S. missile defense plans. Shamkhani’s visit, however, was to be the latest in a series of events that began with the Kremlin’s notice late last fall that it would no longer observe an informal Russian-U.S. agreement limiting Russian arms deliveries to Iran. Then Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev followed up that announcement with a visit to Tehran last December at which the two sides moved in earnest to begin negotiations on new Russian arms sales to Iran. The arms talks gathered more speed during a visit to Moscow this past March by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami–the first by an Iranian head of state in nearly thirty years (see the Monitor, March 20)–and reports suggested that the negotiations that have continued in the interim were expected to produce a framework agreement during Shamkhani’s talks during his now-postponed visit. The outcome of this week’s Russian-Israeli talks should provide some clue as to how soon and with how much earnestness the Russian-Iranian arms talks will resume, and should also test Moscow’s ability to manage the current tensions between its policies toward Iran and toward the Middle East more generally (BBC, VOA, AFP, Reuters, September 3; IRNA, September 2; Interfax, August 30, September 3).