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Iran and Russia's Lost Love

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

30 May 2010 17:1314 Comments
Putin-Ahmadinejad-Tehran3.jpgMounting grievances on both sides come to a head over nuclear issue.

[ 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.

Archive photo.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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The engineering talent behind Chernobyl is building Iran's first nuclear power plant. Just imagine how Iranians will feel towards Russia if there is an Iranian Chernobyl.

The S-300 is now almost obsolete given that the
S-400 is now being deployed and the S-500 is under early stages of production.

Will Russia help in any way if Israel-America undertake military action against Iran? I doubt they will lift a finger.

On the other hand China is building a missile factory in Iran and is supplying very effective defensive weapons so Iran can protect itself from navel attack.

Just look at the investment China is making in Iran plus all the Chinese goods in Iranian shops. Look in any Iranian factory and almost all the new machines are Chinese made with the only Russian machines being made thirty or forty years ago.

It is China that is playing its cards right and has the most to gain from the poor relations between Russia and Iran. And with China on its side Iran can afford to anger Russia and continue to annoy America.

Mohammad Alireza / May 30, 2010 8:32 PM

So Muhammad, you state that the Russians have been victimized by the "hardliners" and that's why they are behaving the way they do. Well, what was the excuse before Iran declared its Fordu pilot-enrichment site? All those years of delaying Bushehr and later the S-300. According to your narrative, what was the excuse for that?

Yes, before the 2010 Tehran Declaration, Iran had to rely on the fickleness of the Russians. But now it has Brazil and Turkey at its side, so it no longer has to put up with Russian shenanigans the way it did in the past.

You know, Muhammad, instead of trying to present this as a weakness of Iran's policies, you should be highlighting the successes of the 2010 Tehran Nuclear Disarmament Conference, President Ahmadinejad's speech at the NPT Conference at the UN, and the stunning Iran-Brazil-Turkey Swap deal that brought about the 2010 Tehran Declaration.

But instead, it's the same old broken record from you. "Rigged" this, "incompetent" that.

Realize that Iran's emboldened assertiveness against years of Russian duplicity comes from the recent successes of its own policies, not from weaknesses. And if you no longer find it in you to be able to recognize such successes, then your bias is generating only flawed analyses. Unfortunately, this is becoming common among Iranian-American analysts. It's embarrassing that we have to rely on non-Iranians such as Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett for objective analyses and a record of proven prediction.

C'mon, Muhammad. Steady yourself. Shape up!

Alireza, the S-300 is not "obsolete". These systems are upgradable and adaptable. Perhaps you meant they are not state-of-the-art, but even that isn't an apt description. It's point-defense deployment would address certain definite needs of Iran's air defense, and would complicate an airstrike against Natanz, particularly coming from the Israeli Air Force.

Pirouz / May 31, 2010 3:26 AM

I think this article is one sided and written out of anti-pathy or a grudge against the 'hardliners'. Their position that Iran is entitled by right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes is a popular internal policy and endorsed by the Non-Aligned movement and increasingly by smaller regional powers such as Brazil and Turkey. Remember rights once voluntarily given up are very difficult to regai and quite honestly Ahmedi and his team have done well diplomatically and their continued lobbying efforts of the non-permanent members of the UNSC is commendable and will enshallah succeed. It is right that Iran should warn its Russian neighbours to come clean and realise that its long term national interests are tied up with thise of its neighbours of which Iran is the largest. Iran is an emerging power and Russia will need it more than a US that is thousands of miles away.

rezvan / May 31, 2010 4:59 AM

I am not sure China has played its cards all that well. Maybe they have played the only hand they could have, given their history and situation. Their diplomacy has been mild in the extreme and highlights a tendancy to ignore problems and put off decisions. Nurturing dictatorships around the world while keeping on good terms with the West makes good business sense but could lead to a rupture at some point. Since Tianneman they have avoided addressing inconsistencies within one party rule such as how to guarantee that a policy debacle like Mao's Great Leap Forward creating famine conditions doesn't reoccur with even worse effect. This might be in the distant past for the New China but the system remains unchanged. Were the Communist party to throw up a character like some of the ones they indulge in countries they patronise they would be unable to remove him and be in deep trouble. I suppose they plan to cross that bridge when they get to it if they get to it.

pirooz / May 31, 2010 6:55 AM

Anyone else looking at the wonderful picture above see a judo chop coming?

pirooz / May 31, 2010 10:29 AM


Your defense of the power elite ruling the Islamic Republic of Iran is always very impressive. But it is puzzling because how can somebody with so much intelligence be so confused about reality. The only possibility that comes to mind is that maybe you are being paid to defend them.

Mohammad Alireza / May 31, 2010 10:38 AM


I do not usually respond to your rants. You have a solid and well-deserved reputation for being a supporter of Ahmadinejad, not just here, but everywhere on the internet. I have yet to see one comment from you critical of the hardliners. So, do not lecture me about what I should write about. You are doing a fine job of expressing the views of Ahmadinejad.

And, let me tell you I do not want your nonsense about voting for Mousavi, or that you support Iran's national interests. If you did, you would not be supporting Ahmadinejad. His very existence is dangerous for Iran.

Secondly, the article is well-balanced. I said what has angered Tehran, and what has angered Moscow. You are confusing objectivity with neutrality. I am objective but not neutral. The two are not the same.

Third, until the moment I leave the scene, I will say that the 2009 elections were rigged. Otherwise, I won't be loyal to my own belief. You are free to say what you want, but don't tell me what I should believe in.

Fourth, even in Tehran people are tired of this government's corruption, waste, nepotism, etc, but you, kaaseh az aash daaghtar, say otherwise. You want to be blind to what they do, be my guest.

Fifth, I don't know about others, but I am personally sick and tired of your rants, nonsense, hollow slogans, and one-sided support for Ahmadinejad. You are neither objective, nor neutral, nor fair. And, do not refer to me as Muhammad. Only my friends call me such. You are not one of them.

Muhammad Sahimi / June 1, 2010 4:23 AM

Well said Mohammad Alireza! Pirouz is a patsy stooge

Agha Irani / June 1, 2010 10:42 AM

Professor Sahimi,

I dont see the end of the Bilateral relations between Iran and Russia.. I beleive, that this is monuever from both sides only, no more, not less.
and as you have said "The fact is Russia treats Iran as a trump card in its relations with the United States". is quite correct. but let us not understimate the Iran's hardliners position; they are also playing thier's. More then any thing else,the deal with Turkey-Brazil should display to Russia that it is not the only savior to Iran in the international scene and if Russia doesnt fulfuil its commitments, Iran Must not rely on it for ever..... so, the exchange of false rehtoric has been there with Russia for a while without any substance. in addition to that, there has been a mix of statements from Russia in almost everything corcerning iran while both of the countries were pursuing their own intrests. Now, forexample, Some senior Russian senators are saying the draft will not affect current contracts between Russia and Iran".

So, it is just like China's own statement that if multilateral sanctions are passed in the UNSC, China firms will be exempted for that as reportedly agreed with the US, whith all the effectivness of the sanctions to change the Iran's behavior aside. So, all are political manuevers with no substantive issues.

The hardliners will continue their strategic relations with Russia at leat in the near future.

in another statement you have also said that
"In sum, they ( the Hardliners) 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".

this remains to be seen in the light of the unfolding events. and that some lawmakers voiced their critism towards the deal " If (the west) issues a new resolution against iran, we will not be committed and dispatching fuel outside Iran will be cancelled" Mohamed Reza, a Prominent lawmaker was qoated as saying.

Indeed, the hardliners were the ones who revived the "nuclear enrichment" as a whole after the reformists had unconditionally accepted the suspention and made many concessions.


abdikadir / June 1, 2010 3:32 PM

And we wonder why Iran is in the dumps as a country? Because we have geniuses like Pirouz "Ahmadinejad's policies are successful" and others like Rezvan "the US is not important to Russia because it's FAR AWAY!". Well done! Delusion knows no bounds. Sarah Palin would be proud. To say these views are provincial would be an insult to dahatis the world over. Sad state of affairs. And we wonder why we are caricutarized abroad as laughingstocks? Because of nonsense like these guys are spouting!

np / June 3, 2010 8:53 PM

Anyone that doesn't believe Russia is using Iran for Russia is living in a distant imagaination land. The only reason that Russia supports Iran is as trump card to the United States, but they will only take this so far. As far as Iran's deal with the Brazilians and Turks. Its not a deal until something acutally happens. It was just a ploy to get the U.N. off its back. It will not work, because they will not follow through with it. Iran's regime is in trouble. They are at a crossroads and need to make a decision. Either they want to become another North Korea, isolated from the World or they want to be integrated into the mainstream. Choice is theirs and it is coming soon. Everyone can try to dig deep into to what's behind all of the decisions coming out of Tehran, but there is no escaping from reality. The time is up for Tehran to make a decision on their future.

Marcus Clonch / June 6, 2010 9:33 PM


I quite agree. The time has come however, this government is incapable of such decisions since it is on the verge of collapse from within and cannot appear weak to the inside opposing forces namely the Iranian people as well as the outside world.

The Barbaric Republic tried the same strategy when it introduced Khatami as a moderate face/front to the rest of the world. It was a failure as Mousavi and Karubi gimmick is a failure.

The Barbaric Republic is incapable of reform. It has reached the end of its miserable life. It is time for REGIME CHANGE and it will happen sooner than later. The Iranian people deserve a civilized and democratic government of the people by the people the nature of which can be determined in a national referendum. It will happen.

Niloofar / June 7, 2010 6:35 PM

To all the Iranian Exiles, Dissidents, CIA and FBI Stooges who are in hope of a Reza Pahlavi come back Dynasty! Forget about it! The criminal Pahlavi Dynasty is dead and no more. As you well know, under the criminal Shah, the Infant immortality rate was 56%, along with an off the chart illiteracy rate. At the turn of the late 1960's most of the medical students and doctors had left the Country.Social services were virtually none existent. Because Mr. Shah N Shah wanted it that way. He also cracked down on the Business Community and that is what caused his demise. If you think that the Iranian people want to turn back to those days you are sadly mistaken. A fair critic and observer of the I.R.I has stated for the record that Islam is Successfully meeting the needs of the people. And that the Clerics of the Republic have learned from the shah's mistake and you will be happy to know that good governance is the order of the day.

Proof of these wonderful developments was revealed in Ervand Abrahamian's book,
Iran a political History.

kirk / June 8, 2010 11:52 PM


Now it's not only the CIA out to get Iran, but it's also the FBI? And their stooges.

Do you have any idea whatsoever what these agencies do? Doesn't appear that you do.

Why not throw in the IRS while you're at it?

muhammad billy bob / June 16, 2010 1:36 AM