By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
“Russia’s long-term interests will not be served by participating in the US games.”
– Ramin Mehmanparast, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman.
The indications are that Moscow has now joined the United States’ “strategic game” against Iran. As Tehran’s preoccupation grows over this unsettling issue about its northern neighbor and sole nuclear partner, rumors are circulating that authorities have interrogated several Russian technicians at the Russian-built Bushehr power plant over their possible involvement with the recent cyber-attack that infected staff at the facility.
The Bushehr plant was due to open this month, but due to technical difficulties, a “small leak” according to officials and not the cyber-attack as initially reported, operations are now slated to begin early next year. The mystery of the origins of the powerful cyber-attack against Iran continues, and there are strong suspicions in Iran of a joint US-Israeli operation, though some in the West now place the blame on Russia. 
Amid this, Tehran is grappling with the challenge of maintaining healthy relations with Moscow despite growing worrying signs that the Kremlin leadership has “caved in” to US and Israeli pressure, according to Iran’s top military officials.
“Unfortunately we are faced with two Russias now instead of one, and one is friendly – the other is not. As a result, they keep taking away with one hand what they offer with the other,” an Iranian analyst at a Tehran think-tank tells the author.
Some Tehran analysts attribute the recent “green light” given by Washington for Russia’s World Trade Organization entry to a behind-the-scenes bargain whereby Moscow is handsomely rewarded for its cooperation with the West against Iran. The Israeli press has been reporting a “secret US-Russia deal”.
The Russian government adamantly denies any such bargain, and its envoy at the UN General Assembly last week threaded the fine line of exhorting Iran to enhance its nuclear transparency while lambasting the “unilateral sanctions” against Iran by US, Europe and others.
That is small comfort to Tehran; such diplomatic nuances on the part of Russian diplomats can barely compensate for Tehran’s realistic fear that Russia may have been lost to the West. Fueling that fear are President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent decision to ban any commercial sale to Iran related to uranium mining in Russia and, more important, a ban on the sale of the sophisticated S-300 air defense system, irrespective of Iran’s dire reaction and warning that it will sue Moscow for breach of its contractual obligations.
Russia, citing the UN sanctions, is now trying to cheat Iran of 90% of the US$800 million contract on the missile system by repaying only 10% under the lame excuse of force majeure – a clever “cheating game” according to some Iranian parliamentarians. That simply adds to Iranian anger that nowadays is directed first and foremost against Washington, reflected in President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s remark over the weekend that he wished US leaders would be “buried”, a dramatic turnaround to the more deferential comments during the initial phase of his recent US visit.
In the US, on the other hand, there is a genuine satisfaction of a “smart Iran strategy” that is working, not only with the Russians but also, perhaps, with regional supporters of Iran such as Turkey and Syria. Turkish President Abdullah Gul made a surprising statement expressing concern about Iran’s nuclear intentions, even as he has urged stronger trade ties with Tehran, and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last month met with Walid al-Moallem, her Syrian counterpart.
With Lebanon’s internal tensions intensifying and Ahmadinejad’s planned Beirut visit approaching, Syria may be trying to be a moderating influence on Tehran at a critical time when retaliation rather than moderation is on the minds of the Iranian leadership. According to a Tehran analyst, as the Iranian government must sooner or later send a stern signal to its enemies, the right place to show some of its teeth may be Lebanon, where the pro-Iran Hezbollah has toyed with the idea of a military takeover.
There is no foreign policy consensus, however, and a number of other Tehran pundits counsel a course of action geared to safekeeping Iran’s network of regional support, especially Syria and Turkey, both of whom are being worked on intensely by Western governments to distance themselves from Tehran as part of efforts to “isolate” the “nuclearizing Iran”. From Tehran’s point of view, on the other hand, the nuclear issue is an “excuse” to weaken an independent regional power that has resisted Western hegemony since the outset of the Islamic Republic.
With respect to Russia, the harsh feelings in Tehran about a “sell-out” to the US may soon translate into a more aggressive Iranian foreign policy action in Russia’s “backyard”, the Central Asia-Caucasus. Iran is getting cosy with Georgia and conceiving a role in alternative pipeline projects that compete with Russia’s pipeline system to Europe. In the Caspian region, Iran’s hitherto amicable relations may turn for the worse if Tehran continues to receive disturbing information that Russia’s intention is to undermine Iranian power in order to appease its American friends.
In turn, this is bound to negatively affect Iran’s cooperation with Russia through the regional grouping, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), where it enjoys the status of an observer. Such a multilateral setback may be offset by increased ties with Beijing, which is somewhat insulated from the “diplomatic holes” in Russia’s foreign policy. Such weakness is aptly exploited by the West, which hopes to enlist Russia as a junior partner in the strategic game with China, in light of recent Russia-India cooperation that is worrying Beijing, and thus clouding the future of the SCO. At the moment, however, many Chinese firms have adopted a “wait and see” attitude instead of implementing the terms of numerous contracts signed with Iran, adding to Tehran’s sense of urgency over its foreign economic policy objectives.
“Russia has been duped by the Americans and their tactical maneuvers, and they fail to see the long-term strategic loss if they persist in their playing in the US game against Iran,” says a Tehran University political science professor on the condition of anonymity, adding that the Russians are being “short-sighted” and sacrificing vested interests with Iran for “a pittance from the West”. And yet, it is doubtful that this necessarily corresponds with Kremlin’s own “risk and opportunity assessment” that includes worries about Iran’s nuclear program.
What is clear is that no matter what inputs in Russia’s “foreign policy black box” motivate its current bandwagoning against Iran, relations between Russia and Iran are deteriorating and require immediate resuscitation, especially by Moscow. Without action, Tehran’s misgivings about Russia’s position on the political faultlines dividing Iran and the West will inevitably grow, thus damaging their overall economic and strategic relations.
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Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran’s Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.