Middle East

Middle East/North Africa

Bear Hugs

The image of the Russian bear stalking Iran’s northern border was dramatically changed in late March as Moscow agreed to the sale of a “defensive” missile system to Tehran, promising up to $7 billion-worth of defense transactions to follow.

“Iran has a right to defend itself,” Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying in the centrist Iran Times (March 16). “Our regional and international well-being is largely interdependent.”

“The first thing that we must remember is that Iran is a sovereign nation that is not under any international embargo, as Iraq is,” said Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov in an interview with Agence France-Presse (March 28). “And no one in their right mind would think of a missile-defense system as a weapon used for attack.”

The presence of volatile regional players such as Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with uncertainty about U.S. foreign-policy priorities, has turned once-wary neighbors into partners.

“Our region is in need of peace and stability more than at any other time in history,” Iranian President Muhammad Khatami was quoted as saying in the Iran Times (March 16). “And to achieve peace, we need to look away from external powers that could destabilize the region.”

Russia got the diplomatic ball rolling in November by expressing willingness to work with Iran on the transfer of civil nuclear technology and defensive weapons. Khatami then visited Moscow in mid-March, the first state visit of its kind since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iranian newspaper columnists, regardless of their political leanings, expressed support for the ties. The state-owned Iran (March 12) wrote, “Khatami’s unique visit to Russia, which may develop into more extensive ties, has shown that, despite the protests of the United States, stronger relations between Tehran and Moscow are mutually beneficial.” Tehran’s reformist Aftab-e-Yazd (March 13) wrote, “The Putin government has approached relations with Iran, especially with regard to sensitive issues such as nuclear technology, in a very progressive manner. There is no doubt that the countries have common strategic interests.”

One issue that is of vital importance to both countries is access to the oil-rich Caspian Sea. “Russia has strived to become a first-degree power in the region by tying its fortunes to the oil and gas sector,” wrote Aftab-e-Yazd (March 14). “[It hopes] to keep Russian domestic interests on the international agenda by having some measure of influence on gas and oil consumers in the West.”

Iran, for its part, has realized that it could gain greater shares in the Caspian oilfields by cooperating with Russia. Toward this end, the Iranian government has steered away from inflammatory issues such as Russia’s wars against Muslims in Chechnya.