Silence speaks volumes in Russia-Iran dispute
The stakes could not have been higher for the presidents of Russia and Iran as they huddled behind closed doors here to address their biggest-ever rift in relations.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was slowly losing the international backing of his closest and most strategically-important ally.
And Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was playing a delicate game of preserving his nation's importance as a crisis mediator while making distance between himself and Ahmadinejad.
So how did Thursday's high-stakes drama conclude? In complete and utter silence.
Russian state television showed a brief picture of the two men shaking hands and Ahmadinejad -- but not Medvedev -- smiling.
But the few seconds of footage had no sound. Russian news agencies reported the fact of the meeting but provided no quotes. And the two men escaped into another conference room without ever facing reporters.
"Medvedev Met Ahmadinejad," was all the Russian papers could report in a headline that graced several dailies and news websites.
But a closer look suggested a heated exchange in which Medvedev piled the pressure on Iran to keep its nuclear ambitions in check or face the risk of all-out international isolation.
Top Kremlin aide Sergei Prikhodko came out of the talks to describe a "completely open" exchange that left no stone unturned.
"The conversation was of a completely open nature. Neither ourselves nor our colleague avoided the unpleasant questions," Prikhodko told a select group of reporters.
He then added: "The president (Medvedev) spoke of the importance of the continuation of a peaceful Iranian nuclear programme."
The comment used diplomatic speak to cloak a firm rebuke of Iran. The insinuation was that what Tehran was pursuing may have an added military dimension.
Prikhodko then noted that Russia's previous project with Iran came under the auspices of the United Nations -- another suggestion as to how Tehran should be acting.
Several reporters walked away from the briefing muttering that the usually affable Kremlin aide looked uncharacteristically tense and chose his words especially carefully.
Prikhodko could be forgiven. The Kremlin has in fact been keeping to a tightly-scripted line that Russia maintained throughout the run-up to the meeting: strongly backing more talks with Iran while distancing itself from its president.
The Kremlin gambit began in June when it backed a somewhat watered down sanctions resolution on Iran and continued in September when it abruptly dropped plans to supply the Islamic nation with some of the world's most advanced missiles.
The moves broke nearly two decades of unbroken support for its neighbor and place Russia squarely in the camp of Western nations that will tackle the crisis once more on December 5.
A furious Ahmadinejad minced no words by accusing Russia of selling out "to our enemies" and siding with "Satan." He firmly stressed Thursday that such pressure tactics would fail.
"They think that they will achieve something by putting pressure on Iran. But they will not," Ahmadinejad told a press conference before the meeting.
"They hope that a blockade of Iran will change the Iranian people. But the Iranian people will not be broken by sanctions."
Analysts had billed the Baku encounter as a last chance for Tehran to avoid international pariah status by making a semblance of peace with Moscow and using its support to reopen the doors to further negotiations.
But Tehran's tone going into the meeting was firm.
It insisted that Iran can do without the Russian weapons and even claimed it had developed and tested a system very similar to the S-300 missiles that Russia never sent.
Military analysts have expressed doubt over similar Iranian claims in the past.
Prikhodko for his part made no mention of weapons when discussing future potential lines of cooperation with Iran.
He listed only "trade and economic contacts -- obviously things that do not fall under the current UN sanctions regime."
© 2010 AFP