Iran-Russia friendship unravels over nuclear crisis
After a surprisingly intimate partnership over two decades, the friendship between Russia and Islamic Iran risks a major rupture amid a crisis in relations over the nuclear standoff, analysts said.
Russia's support of a new round of UN sanctions against Tehran, adopted on Wednesday, and refusal to deliver air defence missiles to Iran has left the Iranian leadership fuming over what they see as betrayal by a trusted ally.
Iran is now cultivating a close alliance with an increasingly confident Islamist-rooted government in Turkey, which some see aimed at replacing its alliance with Russia.
"Never in modern history has there been such an aggravation in relations between Russia and Iran," said Rajab Safarov, director of the Centre for Contemporary Iranian Studies in Moscow.
Iran has been particularly offended by Russia's refusal to give wholehearted backing to a nuclear fuel exchange deal between Iran, Brazil and Turkey aimed at defusing the nuclear standoff.
"Iran expected Russia to be the first to welcome this deal. Now Iran is moving in directions that do not suit Russia," said Safarov.
"Russia's influence on Iran is already waning, the cards that Russia had are no longer there and have gone over to Turkey."
In the early years of the Islamic Republic in the 1980s after the toppling of the shah, chants of "Death to the USSR" were as much as mantra among the Tehran revolutionary faithful as "Death to America".
The USSR actively backed Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the latter part of the 1980-1988 war with Iran, while the clerical regime in Tehran angered Moscow by cracking down on the Soviet-backed Iranian Communist Party Tudeh.
But with the end of the Iran-Iraq war and collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Tehran and Moscow warmed rapidly, based on common energy interests and a shared distrust of the West.
Most crucially, Russia in 1995 signed a deal with Iran to build its first nuclear power station in the southern city of Bushehr.
As the international standoff over the Iranian nuclear crisis intensified in the last half decade, Tehran could count on Moscow to soften sanctions measures and rubbish Western suggestions it was seeking the atomic bomb.
But Russian frustration with Tehran grew rapidly this year after Iran rejected a nuclear fuel exchange deal involving Russia and instead opted for an accord brokered by emerging powers Brazil and Turkey.
Tensions then spiralled when on May 26 Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used one of his trademark provincial rallies to tell supporters that Russia risked becoming one of the Islamic Republic's historic enemies.
Using language rarely heard from a Kremlin official, President Dmitry Medvedev's foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko witheringly told Ahmadinejad that "political demagoguery" never worked.
"There is certainly growing frustration from Russia," said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named. "The Russians prefer a predictable partner."
Yevgeny Volk, deputy director of the Yeltsin Foundation, said Russia had decided to adopt a line more similar to the United States -- Iran's arch foe -- as part its goal of improving ties under President Barack Obama.
"Russia decided that it would be counter-productive to contradict, as before, the Western position on Iran and that this would damage the image of Russia" he said.
"Its nuclear programme and military ambitions seriously worry the Russian leadership," he added.
Iran's anger over Russian support of sanctions has been compounded by bewilderment that Russia is failing to deliver S-300 air defence missile systems it agreed to sell Iran several years ago.
Diplomats said Russia knows that Israel would be capable of launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran if it learned that Russia could deliver the weapons, which would considerably enhance Iranian defensive capabilities.
But at the same time, Russia is pressing ahead with the completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reaffirmed this week it would come online this summer.
"Russia well understands the importance of relations with the United States but does not want to join the caravan of those who have unthinkingly joined its side," said Viktor Kremenyuk of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
"Russia is looking at the situation soberly and wants to help the side which reflects its own interests."
© 2010 AFP