Iran and Russia's Lost Love
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
30 May 2010 17:13
[ opinion ] For 30 years, "Marg bar America" (death to the United States) was the chant at every political gathering, Friday prayer, and state-staged demonstration in the Islamic Republic. When high officials meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, his speeches are repeatedly interrupted by chants of "Marg bar America." It is known that even as Iran and the United States negotiated the release of the American hostages in late 1980 and January 1981, the Iranian delegation, led by Behzad Nabavi (now a top Reformist strategist, who was arrested right after last year's rigged presidential election), would chant "Marg bar America" before entering the sessions. The chants angered Warren Christopher, head of the U.S. negotiation team, and partly explain why he was so fiercely anti-Iran when he was Secretary of State during President Bill Clinton's first term.
But things began to change after the events of last June. On July 17, former president Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani led a highly anticipated Friday prayer in Tehran. To preempt what he might say and send a message about what sort of content was acceptable, the hardliners arranged for Reza Taghavi to speak before him. Taghavi coordinates what Friday prayer leaders throughout the country are meant to talk about in their sermons each week. On this occasion, every time he shouted "Marg bar America," the crowd responded with chants of "Marg bar Rusieh" (death to Russia) and "Marg bar Cheen" (death to China). By the end of his speech, even Taghavi recognized what was going on. People were expressing their anger in a new direction, and with good reason.
Russia and China were the only major world powers to congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his "victory" after the fixed election. Both have been protecting Tehran's hardliners in the international arena, and the U.N. Security Council in particular, against the harsher sanctions sought by the United States and its allies. On June 16, only four days after the election, while Iran was in a deep crisis, Ahmadinejad went to Moscow to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization conference. Iran is not a member, but sits in on meetings as an observer.
As with everything else that the hardliners touch, however, their good relations with Russia appear to be deteriorating. The rupture actually began behind the scenes in 2009, but is now coming into full view. Both sides are angry.
Tehran's hardliners believe that Russia is betraying them. First, the Bushehr light-water nuclear reactor constructed by Russia has yet to come online. A ritual has developed: At the beginning of each year, it is announced that the reactor will start operation by midyear. Eventually, another announcement comes: activation has been postponed to the end of the year, or perhaps early the next year. Ahmadinejad and cohorts need the reactor to declare another "victory" and boast of another "achievement." But they cannot afford to upset the Russians by publicly complaining about the endless delay in activating it.
In August 2009, when Ahmadinejad was picking his cabinet, he sacked Gholamreza Aghazadeh, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Aghazadeh is a competent manager who headed the AEOI during the two terms of former president Mohammad Khatami. He was also minister of oil in the Rafsanjani administration.
There was no official statement explaining why he was sacked. But reliable sources have told Tehran Bureau that it was because he had harshly criticized Russia for not bringing the Bushehr reactor online. He had stated that Russia was using Iran, and in particular its control of the reactor, to advance its own agenda. As Ahmadinejad and his hardline supporters felt that they could not risk having a critic of Russia in the cabinet, Aghazadeh was fired.
The story is similar with some of the weapons that Russia has promised but not delivered. In particular, the Russians dazzled Iran's military with the capabilities of the S-300 strategic air defense system. The United States and Israel warned Russia not to supply Iran with it. And, after a decade of promoting it and four years after a formal agreement was signed to deliver it, the S-300 has yet to arrive. Mahmoud-Reza Sajjadi, Iran's ambassador to Russia, complained a few days ago about the failed commitment, and threatened that Iran may no longer buy Russian weapons.
The fact is Russia treats Iran as a trump card in its relations with the United States. That anti-American hardliners are in power in Tehran is to Russia's advantage because it both minimizes U.S. influence in the country and diverts U.S. attention and political resources toward it. The public and all the political factions in Iran understand this. However, as usual, the hardliners were naive enough to think that Russia would be willing to damage its long-term interests in its relations with the United States just to preserve its $3 billion annual trade with Iran.
What finally brought the hardliners' anger with Russia into the public arena are the recent developments with Iran's nuclear program. On May 17, Iran, Turkey, and Brazil announced a major agreement to ship a little more than half of Iran's stockpile of low-enriched uranium to Turkey, in return for which Iran is supposed to receive nuclear fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor. The next day, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the five permanent members of the Security Council had agreed on a new set of sanctions against Iran, and introduced a draft resolution to the Council.
Despite their rhetoric that they will not be hurt by new sanctions, Tehran's hardliners know that, even though they are rather mild, they will make matters for them much more complicated. Their anxiety is evidenced by the timing of the deal with Turkey and Brazil and by the recent trips made by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to Bosnia and Austria, and Ahmadinejad himself to Uganda -- all nonpermanent members of the Security Council, who were asked to vote against new sanctions or at least abstain.
Iran's economic woes have been increasing at a rapid pace. In addition to the corruption and incompetence of Ahmadinejad and the hardliners that have led to the squandering of the country's resources, Iran is having trouble selling its oil. Thirty five million tons -- the total production for 10 days -- is stored in 19 tankers and supertankers in the Persian Gulf, awaiting a buyer. This is half of all the oil currently stored in floating tankers around the world.
China has reduced its oil imports from Iran. Together with Japan, Malaysia, and India, all major customers of Iran's oil, it is negotiating with Saudi Arabia to expand its purchases and thus reduce its dependence on Iran. There is also a global oversupply of oil, mostly due to the world's sputtering economy, but also because Saudi Arabia decided to increase its oil production in order to put the squeeze on Iran, just as it did during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. To counter this trend, Iran has been offering significant discounts to its customers of $3-7 per barrel. Other Persian Gulf oil producers also offer discounts, but Iran's seem to be more significant, and influenced by the political developments.
In addition, lack of proper maintenance of Iran's existing 40 oil fields and the absence of new investments in the industry has reduced production. The ambitious plans announced in January to increase oil production to 5.1 million barrels a day (almost the same level as before the Revolution) are on hold, simply because up-to-date technology, not to mention foreign investment, is not available to Iran.
And that is not the end of the country's economic woes. Many banks in the European Union are not willing to open lines of credits for Iran companies that wish to import European products. As a result, they must pay cash for many transactions, which is very difficult. These are alarming developments for Tehran's fundamentalists, who use the huge oil income to keep their supporters in line, buy the loyalty of others, and throw money at various nations to maintain their support in the international arena.
Russia, in turn, is angry at Iran, because it has been burned by the Tehran hardliners several times. It had already hinted that it would go along with new sanctions. In March, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "We have been disappointed with Iran's behavior." He quoted Russian President Dmitry Medvedev as saying, "Sanctions seldom work, but sometimes they are inevitable." He also said, "We are convinced and President Medvedev has also mentioned today [March 25] that sanctions must be intelligent, unaggressive and not paralyzing and should have no negative impact on the Iranian people but should be imposed on those who make decisions on cooperating with the international community." As usual, the hardliners could not hear what they were being told.
The revelations about the Fordow uranium enrichment facility near Qom offer a prime example of how Russia feels it has been burned by the hardliners. For years, Russia argued that all of Iran's nuclear facilities were monitored and safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that there was no evidence that Iran had any secret nuclear facility and, therefore, that there was no reason to worry about the country's nuclear program. As I have previously described, although the construction of the Fordow facility does not appear to violate Iran's IAEA obligations, the exposure of this undeclared nuclear facility made Russia look foolish and naive.
Another reason for Russian anger is the way the hardliners backtracked on the October 1, 2009, preliminary agreement between Iran, the IAEA, the United States, France, and Russia. Under the pact, Iran's low-enriched uranium would have been shipped first to Russia and then to France for further enrichment, purification, and conversion to fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor. After the draft of the agreement was taken from Vienna to Tehran, it was met by fierce opposition within the hardliners' camp. As a result, Tehran began making new demands that angered not only the United States and its allies, but embarrassed Russia.
In a speech last week in Kerman, Ahmadinejad launched a public attack. He stated, "Iran and Russia are neighbors, and historically we have been friends, as neighbors cannot not be friends, but this means that we should respect each other and defend each other's rights. This is the least of our expectations from them." He continued, "Explaining [to Iranians] the behavior of Russia's president has become very difficult. They cannot decide whether they are their neighbors or want to pursue other things. If I were Russia's president, I would be very cautious about passing judgment and expressing opinion about issues that have to go with a powerful and history-making nation like Iran. There should not be a situation in which at such a critical moment our neighbor sides with the enemies that have had 30 years of enmity toward Iran. I hope that they change their behavior.... Russia's leaders should not do anything to force our people to consider them as their enemy."
It took the Kremlin only hours to respond. Sergei Prikhodko, Medvedev's top foreign policy adviser, rejected Ahmadinejad's criticism. In a statement read out by a Kremlin spokeswoman, he proclaimed, "No one has ever managed to preserve one's authority with political demagoguery. I am convinced the thousands of years of Iranian history itself is evidence of this. The Russian Federation is governed by its own long-term state interests. Our position is Russian: it reflects the interests of all the peoples of greater Russia and so it can be neither pro-American nor pro-Iranian."
Continuing the rebuke, Prikhodko's statement declared, "Any unpredictability, any political extremism, lack of transparency or inconsistency in taking decisions that affect and concern the entire world community is unacceptable for us. It would be good if those who are now speaking in the name of the wise people of Iran...would remember this." Of course, the Reformists have been saying similar things for years, warnings that have gone unheeded by the hardliners.
Pyotr Goncharov, a Russian specialist on the Persian Gulf, said "Moscow has repeatedly saved Iran from very tough sanctions, so Ahmadinejad's defiance is quite frankly out of place.
It is simply the latest attempt by the Iranian president to lay the blame for his problems at someone else's door."
It is, as usual, impossible for Ahmadinejad and his supporters, including Ayatollah Khamenei, to accept their mistakes and concede anything regarding their problems, including those with Russia. The agreement with Turkey and Brazil has the direct support of Khamenei. Some hardliners in the Guards have criticized Ahmadinejad for signing the agreement, but he has reportedly said, referring to Khamenei with the honorific applied to the Supreme Leader, "I only signed it. Agha himself led the effort. He believes that even if we throw our uranium into the ocean, it would be better than to retreat against our enemies." In sum, they would prefer to waste Iran's national wealth, obtained through years of painstaking work, rather than accept that their nuclear policy has been a mistake.
For his part, Khamenei has remained silent. If the new sanctions are approved despite Iran's concessions, Ahmadinejad will be blamed for the approval. If they are not, we will hear the deafening screams of the hardliners about the leadership of Agha. In the meantime, rejecting the October 2009 agreement, and then accepting it again with major concessions have cost the hardliners Russia's support.
Among the five permanent members of the Security Council, only China's position on the new sanctions is unclear. It has supported the agreement between Iran, Turkey, and Brazil, which may provide it with a good excuse to oppose the sanctions, or at least demand that they be postponed. That is, of course, if Ahmadinejad and the hardliners do not burn the Chinese leaders too.
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