Iran-Russia: odd couple at risk of break-up

10th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

After a surprisingly intimate partnership over two decades, the friendship between Russia and 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 now is 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.

"Russia's influence on Iran is already waning, the cards that Russia had are no longer there and have gone over to Turkey," said Safarov.

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.

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 the Brazil-Turkey accord.

Tensions spiralled last month when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad warned Moscow risked becoming one of the Islamic Republic's historic enemies and a top Kremlin official spat back that "political demagoguery" never worked.

Suspicion of Russia has strong roots in Iran, where the Russo-Persian wars of the 19th century -- which saw imperial Russia grab large tracts of Persian territory -- have not been forgotten.

"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 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.

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.

Russia will abide by the UN Security Council sanctions, a source in the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation (FSVTS) said Thursday, and "the contract for... the S-300 air defence missile systems will be frozen."

But at the same time, Russia is pressing ahead with the completion of Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, which it signed a deal to build in 1995. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reaffirmed this week it would come online this summer.

"Russia is looking at the situation soberly and wants to help the side which reflects its own interests," said Viktor Kremenyuk of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

© 2010 AFP

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