Historically, Russia and Iran have long been rivals. But Moscow finds itself in a different role these days, for its own pragmatic reasons.
The bilateral talks followed a regional summit of Caspian Sea states. As expected, Putin reaffirmed Russia's support for Iran's development of nuclear energy in a statement at the end of the summit. "All the Caspian countries reiterate their commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty on condition that each of our countries has the right to develop peaceful nuclear programs without any restrictions," Putin said.
In recent years, Russia has become one of Iran's key international partners. Ahmadinejad, in an interview with Russian television on the eve of Putin's visit, said the two countries are "natural allies from the geographical as well as from the political and cultural point of view."
But the historical record belies this assertion. In fact, Russia and Iran have mostly been adversaries. In the 19th century, Russian imperial forces battled with the Persians over control of Central Asia and the Caucasus. Early in the 20th century, Russian soldiers even occupied parts of northern Persia and later tried, with Britain, to carve up the country into spheres of influence.
During World War II, the Soviet Union together with Britain re-invaded the country to secure its oil fields. Soviet troops later tried to establish a puppet regime before withdrawing. More recently, in the 1980s, the Soviet Union backed Iraq's Saddam Hussein in his bloody war with Tehran.
Yet to paraphrase the 19th century British statesman Lord Palmerston, in politics there are no permanent allies -- or enemies -- only permanent interests. And the interests of Moscow and Tehran currently align on several fronts.
United Against 'Unipolarism'
Politically, both countries find their new alliance a useful counterweight against pressure from the West. Both Putin and Ahmadinejad frequently talk about the need to resist "unipolarism" -- code for American influence.
Ahmadinejad, in his interview with Russian television, tried to appeal to the anti-Western camp in Moscow, saying both Iran and Russia were "countries of the Eastern type with the same Eastern features."
Economically, the U.S. embargo against Iran has driven Tehran closer to Moscow. Iran has turned to Russia to renew its civilian air fleet, to update its military and industrial infrastructure, and of course, to build its first nuclear power plant, at Bushehr.
Nina Mamedova, who heads the Iranian department at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Eastern Studies, says Iran remains a reliable economic partner for Russia. "We are involved in a lot of mutual projects - in the spheres of oil, gas and transport. And of course for Russia it's important to support these good relations with Iran, in order to participate in all these projects," Mamedova said.
But the nuclear issue risks forcing Russia into a corner. Next month, the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to report to the UN Security Council on Iran's level of cooperation with UN nuclear inspectors. If the report is negative, Washington and its European allies will push for a third, tougher round of sanctions against Tehran.
Russia, along with China, has repeatedly indicated it does not favor the move, but Moscow appears to be leaving itself some maneuvering room. Putin recently told visiting French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Russia operates "on the principle" that Iran does not plan to make or acquire nuclear weapons.
If the UN's nuclear watchdog indicates otherwise, Moscow might change its position. In a signal that Moscow could get tough if Tehran continues to defy calls to halt its uranium enrichment, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently emphasized that "Iran must respond to the demands of the international community."
In another not-so-subtle signal from Russia, cooperation on finishing the Bushehr nuclear plant has also recently foundered.
Up to now, the rapprochement between Tehran and Moscow has served Russia's interests. But it's not a very stable alliance. And ultimately, as many analysts note, Russia has little interest in seeing Tehran get the bomb.
(RFE/RL's Chloe Arnold in Moscow contributed to this report)
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