Much Ado Over Sanction Vote
by PETER PIATETSKY in Washington, D.C.
09 Jul 2010 04:31
Tehran vents, Moscow pretends not to notice.In the month since Russia voted in the U.N. Security Council for sanctions against Iran, Iranian officials have been struggling to maintain good relations with their once steadfast ally. Iran's president, foreign minister, minister of defense, intelligence apparatus, and numerous members of the Majles (parliament) have voiced conflicting opinions, issued statements later retracted or denied, and chastised one another for speaking out. Tehran's failure to present a unified response does not so much reflect internal foreign policy divisions as it does frustration with Moscow and its own inability to change the relationship's dynamics.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had already entered the fray on May 26 during a speech in Kerman in which he bluntly criticized his Russian counterpart and told him to be "very cautious" when dealing with Iran. Ahmadinejad earned an immediate rebuke from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which accused him of "political demagoguery" and "extremism." Even before sanctions passed on June 9, Majles deputies were deciding against whom to retaliate and Russia was high on their list.
Representative Vali Esmaili told Jam-e-Jam Online that he and other deputies were going to punish Russia and China for their vote by preparing "a proposal that will be handed over to the Majles Presidium very soon to discuss downgrading relations with these two countries." Esmaili also told Khabar Online on June 13 that "more than 25 lawmakers have signed a declaration which calls for a revision of the Islamic Republic's relations with both countries." Representative Parviz Sarvari opined to Jam-e-Jam Online that Iran should "be more cautious in its relations with these two countries."
Representative Hossein Ebrahimi, a deputy chair of the Majles National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, took the opposite tack on June 14, telling Mehr News Agency that Russia and China had "the best of intentions" when they approved the latest sanctions, citing what he thought to be the position of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. He said that the ministry believed the "moves were in fact sympathetic" and that "there should be no change" in Iran's relations with the two countries. However, on June 26, Ebrahimi told the Iranian Labor News Agency that "a change in Iran's relations with these countries is definite" and that in a meeting with his committee, "representatives of the Intelligence Ministry presented a coherent analysis of the need to downgrade ties" with Russia and China.
According to another committee member, Mohammad Mehdi Shahriyari, the problem wasn't so much Russia's vote as the public airing of dirty laundry. In an interview published by Mardom Salari Online on June 21, he called the public criticism of Russia in Iran "incoherent," chided officials for acting "carelessly," and said that "costly remarks should have been avoided, because this matter led [the Russians] to react harshly." He urged restraint instead of venting, saying that "we could have expressed our criticism in private."
Trying to rein in his committee and get the Majles foreign policy debate back under his control, Boroujerdi declared on three separate occasions in June that relations with Russia and China would not be downgraded, called Ebrahimi's comments misunderstood, and claimed that "the issue of reducing ties with Russia has not been discussed at a [Majles] national security committee meeting at all." Boroujerdi even complimented Russia and China in an Islamic Republic News Agency interview on July 3, saying that their role "in decreasing the harshness of that [sanction] resolution should not be ignored."
The confusion in the Majles has been mirrored at the Foreign Ministry, whose officials were forced to deny Ebrahimi's comments, saying that "Russia and China's anti-Iran vote in the U.N. Security Council [was] a mild approach." On June 16, Iran's ambassador to Russia said in an interview with Russian Oil that "although at the current time we are living through what is not the best period in our relations, we have a promising future." On June 29, state-run Press TV reported that Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki affirmed the ambassador's optimistic tone, calling Russo-Iranian ties positive in a press conference, though the ministry's official transcript contained no such statement. Rather, according to the transcript, Mottaki urged Russia to follow "practical policies." He seemed to imply that disagreeing with Iran is bad for Russia, bringing up Afghanistan, concerning which he said, "We in the past had differences of opinion."
Adding to Iranian frustration is the languishing reactor at Busher, on which Russia has pushed back deadlines for over a decade -- twice just this year. Still worse is the similarly long running saga of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, which Iran paid for in 2005, but Russia has yet to deliver. On June 10, the day after sanctions passed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said they would not affect the S-300 delivery because the "resolution creates restrictions on cooperation with Iran concerning offensive weapons, but defensive weapons don't fall under this restriction." By the following day, the weapons had been reclassified as "offensive" and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared the deal "frozen." Over the next few weeks, furious Majles deputies first claimed that the S-300 was not covered by sanctions, then demanded that it be delivered because it was paid for, then threatened that nondelivery would hurt relations, then said Iran did not need the S-300 because more advanced systems existed and Iran would build its own, before finally returning to demands that Russia deliver or else. The debacle forced Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi to comment on multiple occasions that the S-300 "has nothing to do with UN resolutions" and that if Russia fails to deliver the missiles, it will have to pay financial damages.
Talking to Tehran Bureau, Woodrow Wilson Center Iran expert Michael Adler said that while the criticism coming from Tehran shows significant frustration with Moscow, Moscow is also frustrated with Tehran, especially after it rejected a fuel swap deal that the Russians brokered last fall. Adler says that this, along with the secret enrichment site near Qom, which Iran concealed from Russia, left the Russians "surprised and embarrassed." Iran is now faced with an "annoyed" Russia, says Adler, one manifestation of which is Russia's approach to the S-300: "No matter what the Russians say, the sanctions don't apply to the S-300, but the Russians want it to, so it does." This attitude further stokes Iranian anger, but Adler says that Tehran's anti-Russia rhetoric has nothing behind it: "People say where there's smoke there's fire. Well, if you look at the diplomatic maneuvering in this crisis, you could say that where there's smoke there's no fire, because things don't change."
That is exactly how Russian diplomats are treating this low point in relations, playing down the sanctions and feigning ignorance of the animosity. "Does Moscow care?" asks Adler. "Sure they do. Do they go home and cry? I don't think so. Do they care to the point that they watch and analyze it and deploy resources to remain up to date in Iran? Absolutely." When asked about anti-Russian motions in the Majles, the Russian ambassador in Tehran, Alexander Sadonikov, dismissed both the anger and the reasons behind it, telling Novy Vzglyad on July 2 that "in any parliament in any country many different and often contradictory opinions" are expressed. Ignoring the preponderance of negative commentary from ministers and Majles deputies, Sadovnikov instead trumpeted Boroujerdi's statement that the Majles was not going to recommend a revision in Russo-Iranian ties.
For now, Russia can punish Iran while staying in its good graces. Those Iranian politicians noting that more advanced weapons systems than the S-300 are on the market and that the Russians are stalling on the Busher nuclear reactor are correct, but no other nation is even willing to discuss sharing such technology with Iran. This realization is sinking in with the leadership, which, after allowing anti-Russian sentiment to build for a month, finally seems to be toning down the rhetoric.
On July 2, Majles Speaker Ali Larijani, perhaps the most influential Iranian official since Ahmadinejad to opine on the issue, told Al Rai that although there is a need for "extensive discussions with the Russians," it was not likely that "tactical events might lead to major changes" in the relationship.
The Russo-Iranian alliance was never based on shared ideology or even economic ties, but on geopolitics and pragmatism. While this is a strained moment in relations, it is not a collapse. The two countries continue to need each other. As Adler says, the "bottom line is that the sanctions come and go, and the Russian-Iranian relationship continues."
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