From Russia Without Much Love
By Robert Tait,
The comments would have been blistering enough if
they had been aimed at one of Iran's enemies. But the country President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad was excoriating as Satan's sidekick was none other than Russia, long
seen by the West as the Islamic republic's staunch champion and chief bodyguard.
Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad
(left) shakes hands with the "mouthpiece for Iran's enemies" at an
SCO summit in Yekaterinburg in June 2009.
"Some people who are under the influence of Satan thought that if they
unilaterally and illegally cancel some defense agreements they have with us, it
will hurt the Iranian nation," Ahmadinejad told a rally in Bojnourd in
northeastern Iran on November 3.
"I want to tell them on your behalf
that we consider the deal to still be valid. They should execute it. If they
don't, the Iranian people will seek its rights, the losses and the fines on it."
The "deal" he was referring to was an estimated $800 million contract for Russia
to sell Iran S-300 long-range antiaircraft missiles.
The sale -- agreed
in 2005 but repeatedly delayed by Russia for "technical" reasons -- was finally
canceled by President Dmitry Medvedev in September in a decree formally banning
the supply of the missiles and other weapons to Iran. The decision followed a
long period of diplomatic cat-and-mouse during which Moscow sent mixed signals
and was subjected to fierce lobbying by the United States and Israel not to
fulfill the contract.
It was not the first time Iran has felt slighted
by Russia, despite the two countries' presumed intimacy. A nuclear reactor at
Bushehr was finally completed by Russian contractors only in August after years
of delays, which Moscow explained away by citing unspecified payment
difficulties but which were denounced as mere foot-dragging by Tehran.
However, canceling the missile contract raised
Iranian anger to fever pitch because it leaves the country's nuclear
installations vulnerable to military strikes, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, a
nonproliferation specialist at the London-based International Institute for
The S-300 is a series
of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems.
"Without the S-300 Iran's above-ground nuclear
facilities are more or less sitting ducks in respect to the sophisticated attack
capabilities of countries like Israel," Fitzpatrick says. "The underground
facility at Natanz is rather well-protected by a series of concrete and layers
of dirt. But even that can be hit by sophisticated Israeli air strikes that can
pinpoint the locations and, with repeated attacks, dig a hole and then hit again
the bottom of that hole to shake up the underground facility."
to Fitzpatrick, the S-300 "would be a good defense against such Israeli
capabilities, but without that Iran is decidedly inferior."
already expressed a dim view of previous remarks of Ahmadinejad criticizing
Russia for backing a fourth round of United Nations sanctions against Iran over
its uranium-enrichment program. In July, Russia's Foreign Ministry accused
Ahmadinejad of making "categorically unacceptable" comments after he accused
Medvedev of becoming a "mouthpiece for Iran's enemies" in response to remarks by
the Russian leader warning that Iran possessed the potential to build a nuclear
bomb, a departure from Moscow's previous noncommittal stance that there was no
Traditional View Of Russia
rhetorical spat may come as a surprise to Western observers accustomed to
viewing Russia as an Iranian ally after years of seeing it use its veto power on
the UN Security Council to block and dilute sanctions over Tehran's nuclear
But such actions have cut little ice in Tehran, where Moscow's
support for sanctions -- however weak they may be -- is viewed as a betrayal and
typical of alleged Russian opportunism.
And a longer historical overview
of relations between the countries suggests the recent contretemps are a
reversion to type.
Iran's policymakers have long regarded Moscow with a
mixture of hostility and distrust, fed by resentment over Russian annexation of
Iranian territory during the 19th century and unsuccessful attempts at further
dismemberment in the 20th. The Soviet Union, with which Iran shared a long
border, was dubbed "the lesser Satan" (as opposed to the "Great Satan" label for
the United States) by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979
Frosty Iran-Russia relations only thawed after the
withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 -- the year of Khomeini's
death -- and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union.
Mark Katz, a
Russian foreign-policy specialist at George Mason University in Washington,
D.C., says Ahmadinejad's recent outbursts reflect a visceral anti-Russian
sentiment shared by many Iranians and mutually felt in Russia. While the two
countries dislike each other, Katz says, each also fears the other striking up
an alliance with the United States.
From the Iranian point of view, they
simply regard Russia as an age-old enemy," Katz argues. "In Iranian press
commentaries, even now, they bring up Russian conquests of the South Caucasus,
taking Azerbaijan away from Russia. They talk about Russian intervention in the
20th century to crush the constitutional revolution. They talk about Russian and
British occupation during World War II. They talk about Soviet support for
Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. All these things are still very much
with them. But what the Iranians fear is that Russia and America are going to
gang up on them."
Friend Or Enemy Of My Enemy?
That fear has come true with the S-300 decision, Katz believes -- an apparent
spin-off of the Obama administration's policy of "resetting" relations with
Russia following a period of hostility during George W. Bush's presidency.
"In the past, the typical Russian behavior was that, we're going to sell you
something, you paid us, that's fine but there are technical problems. In other
words, they spun it out," Katz explains. "Now what they're saying is: No, we're
not going to deliver these weapons. Why are they doing so, clearly because the
Obama administration has pushed them to. The Kremlin for whatever reason has
decided to go along with this.
"What are the Iranians to think? This is their
nightmare," Katz concludes. "They have lived on Russian-American division. That
has benefited them and if Russia and America are not so divided, then the
Iranians are not so happy."
Destined to be at odds?
Some analysts are skeptical of Moscow's new
hard line on Tehran and say relations between the two could easily thaw. Russia,
they say, feels less threatened than the West by the prospect of a nuclear Iran.
It also has a track record of playing Tehran and Washington off against each
Yet by attacking Russia, Ahmadinejad is bringing himself into
line with opposition sentiment -- somewhat ironically, given the reasons for
Moscow's recent unpopularity amongst many Iranians.
During the turmoil that followed his disputed reelection in June 2009,
demonstrators in the opposition Green Movement chanted "Death to Russia" in
protest at its perceived support for Ahmadinejad. Russia was the first country
to formally recognize the president's victory, despite widespread accusations
that the election was stolen.
Hushang Amirahmadi, president of the
U.S.-based American-Iranian Council and an advocate of rapprochement between
Washington and Tehran, says Ahmadinejad's recent comments are in line with a
commonplace view in Iran that sees Russia -- rather than the United States -- as
the natural enemy.
"Ninety percent of Iranians without any thought would
immediately say our friends are Americans and our enemies are Russians,"
Amirahmadi says. "That's the mind-set on the streets of Tehran. Governments have
been different. I think even within the government, the absolute majority would
like to mend relations with the U.S. Iranians don't want to be an enemy of the
Russians, but they certainly prefer the U.S."
In the meantime,
Amirahmadi believes, ties between Tehran and Moscow will remain active -- if
fraught -- until there is a resolution to the long-running American-Iranian
"What will happen to the Iran-Russia relationship has a lot to
do with what will happen to the U.S.-Iran relationship," he says. "I think the
Iranians and the Russians are going to tactically work with each other, at times
in a nicer way and at other times more critically.
"But they are going
to continue that relationship until the problem with the United States is
settled. When that relationship is settled, I honestly believe that the Iranians
are going to take a closer look at the Russians and, most likely, will reverse
much of what they are doing with Russia in favor of the United States."
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