Friend in need

Published : Nov 16, 2007 00:00 IST

On the sidelines of the Caspian Summit in Teheran, Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to avert the danger of an Iran-U.S. war.

in MoscowRussian President Vladimir

PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin, when he travelled to Teheran last month, became the first Russian leader after Josef Stalin to visit Iran. If Stalin was in that country in 1943 for talks with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the height of the Second World War, Putins visit came as U.S. President George W. Bush raised the spectre of a Third World War.

Putins prime goal in going to Iran was to ward off the danger of war. The U.S. has refused to rule out military action against Iran and the hawks in Washington have been calling openly for an attack on Iran. The Pentagon has made the largest military deployment in the region since the 2003 war, with half of the U.S. Navys warships positioned within striking distance of Iran. Bush upped the ante by putting an equation mark between a nuclearised Iran and another world war.

If youre interested in avoiding World War Three, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from [having] the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon, he warned while speaking at a press conference.

Putin, who has consistently advocated a negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, wanted above all to make the military option as difficult as possible for the U.S. The very fact that Teheran was the venue of a five-nation Caspian Summit, which was the formal reason for Putins trip to Iran, served to deter U.S. warmongers. It destroyed the wall of isolation the U.S. had been building around Iran, improved the geostrategic climate around that country, and demonstrated its neighbours solidarity with it.

The five Caspian nations Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan pledged to deny outside countries the right to use their territories for launching military action. The parties underline that under no circumstances would they allow other nations to use their territory for waging aggression or other military action against any of the parties, a declaration adopted at the Teheran summit said.

This pledge dashed U.S. hopes of using Azerbaijans territory as a staging ground for strikes against Iran, which has a common border with Azerbaijan.

The countries also reiterated Irans right to nuclear energy programmes, stressing that any country that is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can carry out research and can use nuclear energy for peaceful means without discrimination, according to the declaration.

In order to deny the U.S. any pretext for attacking Iran, Putin needed to get Iran to cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This issue topped the agenda of his talks in Teheran. If there is a world leader well positioned to discuss this thorny subject with Iranian leaders, it is certainly Putin, given his consistent support for Iran in its standoff with the West.

It is true that Russia voted for limited United Nations sanctions against Iran in December 2006, but then Iran is itself to blame for this. Iran gave Russia reason to think that it was misusing Russias diplomatic support when last year it first accepted the Russian proposal to enrich uranium on Russian territory but after Russia went public with the deal it suddenly backed away. The Kremlin accused Teheran of abusing our constructive relations and doing nothing to convince our colleagues of the consistency of Teherans policies.

Notwithstanding the spat and the sanctions, Russia delivered, by January 2007, 29 sophisticated Tor M1 air defence systems to Iran under a $700-million contract signed in 2005. The state-of-the-art short-range missiles, capable of tracking 48 targets and shooting down two targets simultaneously at a height of six kilometres, significantly enhanced Irans capability to repulse air and missile attacks and gave Iran a psychological boost.

Ahead of his trip to Teheran, Putin emphasised Russias role as the main defender of Iran in the face of Western pressure. During talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the week leading up to his Iranian visit, Putin issued stern warnings to the West not to tighten sanctions against Iran.

Pointing to the absence of any objective data to prove that Iran was seeking nuclear capability, Putin told his Western visitors to drop their unilateral approach and periodic calls to use military force against Iran as these undermine and impede our collective effort.

In Teheran, Putin also offered strong support to Iran on the issue of nuclear energy. We believe that every country has the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy programmes, he said, stressing that Russia was the only country that was helping Iran develop its nuclear programme.

At the same time Putin urged Iranian leaders to cooperate fully with the IAEA and offered Iran incentives to clear outstanding questions about its nuclear programme. Completing the construction of the Bushehr nuclear station was one of them. Russia has put on hold plans to operationalise the nuclear reactor it is building at Bushehr, citing erratic funding by Iran and problems with sourcing equipment from third countries.

While reiterating Russias commitment to complete and start up the Bushehr project, Putin refused to be pinned down to deadlines. I only made promises to my mother when I was a little boy, he told Iranian journalists.

Putin said the two sides were negotiating on revisions to the Bushehr contract to clarify legal, financial and technological matters, whereafter a decision on fuel can be made. Putin is clearly using the nuclear station issue as his leverage with Teheran in prodding it to open up its entire nuclear programme.

The Russian President took advantage of his first-ever meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to put forward what Irans chief nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani described as an important proposal on Irans nuclear programme. This could involve Irans participation in an international fuel services centre Russia has set up in Angarsk, Siberia, and possibly a joint fuel enrichment programme in Iran under international control.

Putins proposals have intensified infighting in Iran over nuclear diplomacy tactics. Four days after Putins visit, Larijani was fired from his post as Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. However, the European Unions (E.U.) foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said that Larijani had maintained his authority and leadership in talks with the E.U. in Rome on October 23-24, where he represented Iran jointly with his successor, Saeed Jalili.

Little wonder that Putin was enraged by Washingtons decision to choose this delicate moment to impose sweeping unilateral sanctions on Iran, the harshest in nearly three decades. He compared the U.S. to a madman running around with a razor blade in his hand.

A U.S. Navy

Given Washingtons consistent record of trying to thwart any compromise with Iran, Putin wisely refused to make Russias relations with Iran hostage to its nuclear programme. Speaking in Teheran, Putin said that the historical and cultural ties between the two countries were so strong that we will always reach agreement on any problem that may come up, because we understand each other.

Russia and Iran share strategic interests in Central Asia, the Caspian and the Caucasus. Putin pointed out that the two countries had jointly helped end the civil war in Tajikistan in the 1990s and were working to normalise the situation in Afghanistan. In contrast to many other Muslim nations, Iran has always treated Chechnya as Russias internal matter and played an instrumental role in the Organisation of Islamic Conference to prevent it from openly supporting Chechen rebels. Russia and Iran both have a stake in maintaining peace and stability in Central Asia and the Caucasus and are both concerned over the growing U.S. presence in the region.

Russia and Iran, the worlds largest and second-largest holders of natural gas reserves, both support the idea of creating a confederation of gas-producing countries on the lines of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Iran has observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is likely to be a member of an energy club that Russia is planning for the SCO.

Putin used his visit to Teheran to strengthen bilateral ties and give them a strategic dimension. Reports said the two countries were discussing 130 economic projects together worth more than $100 billion. During Putins visit, the sides agreed to increase the two nations economic and business exchanges to $200 billion within the next 10 years, the Iranian Presidents website said. This would mean a 100-fold jump in bilateral trade from the current level of $2 billion. Putin is reported to have told Ayatollah Khamenei that Russia was ready to expand ties without limitations with Iran.

Russia is Irans main arms and technology supplier. In the past 15 years Russia has supplied Iran with combat planes, helicopters, diesel submarines, tanks and air defence systems. Teheran has given Moscow a long shopping list of weapon platforms it wants to buy. Russia has agreed to supply engines for Irans new combat planes, Azarakhsh and Shafaq, as well as for the J-10 jet fighters Iran has bought from China.

Russias natural gas monopoly Gazprom, which has already invested $750 million in projects in Iran, is planning to invest $1.7 billion in building an oil refinery jointly with Iran in neighbouring Armenia. The plant will process oil pumped from Tabriz in northern Iran. Irans Deputy Oil Minister Hossein Noqrekar-Shirazi said that the two sides had discussed further projects involving refineries, pipelines and gas fields in Iran during Putins visit. Teheran supports Gazproms possible involvement in the construction of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. Both Putin and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cited energy, transportation and aerospace as promising sectors for joint Iranian-Russian investments.

The Caspian Summit showed that Russia and Iran agreed on most regional issues. The only area of disagreement is the divisive issue of sharing the energy-rich Caspian seabed, which has dogged the five coastal states since their first summit in 1991. However, the Caspian nations reiterated their resolve to solve the problem and agreed to hold their summit meetings annually.

Moscow and Teheran are both opposed to Western plans to build gas and oil pipelines across the Caspian bypassing Russia and Iran; both countries insisted at the Caspian Summit that such projects required the consent of all the five littoral states. Russia strongly supported Irans initiative to set up an economic cooperation organisation of the Caspian nations and volunteered to host the first meeting of the new body in Astrakhan next year.

Putins visit to Teheran strengthened an emerging strategic axis between Russia, Iran and Armenia as a counterbalance in the Caucasus to NATO-aspiring Georgia and Azerbaijan. Within days of Putins departure from Iran, Ahmadinejad travelled to Armenia to bolster ties between the two countries.

Putin welcomed Irans signing of an agreement with Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan on the sidelines of the Caspian Summit to build a railway line along the Caspian linking Iran with Russia. It will be part of the North-South Transport Corridor, a joint project of Russia, Iran and India. The Russian Railways, the state-owned railway company of Russia, is already involved in a multinational project to build a 350-km railway between the town of Astara on Azerbaijans border and Kazvin on Iranian territory.

Putins visit to Iran demonstrated Russias new assertive foreign policy, which crystallised as the Russian economy bounced back from the crisis of the 1990s. The visit strengthened Russias relations with Iran, raised its profile in the region, and undermined the U.S. bullying tactics towards Iran.

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