From Russia with pragmatism

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 16/10/07):

In typical he-man style, Russia’s Vladimir Putin ignored an alleged plot to assassinate him and went ahead today with a visit to Tehran. Iran says the plot story was black propaganda fabricated by its enemies, which may well be true. Historically speaking, Russians need no outside help in doing away with their leaders. They manage perfectly well by themselves.

It is also true though that, over the centuries, Persian-Russian relations have been spattered with the blood of eminent men. During the Napoleonic wars, Iran turned to France, and then Britain, for help in fending off imperial Russia. But it was let down by both and in 1813, the treaty of Golestan effectively confirmed Russia’s seizure of its Caucasus territories. Moscow’s problems in Muslim Chechnya and Dagestan date from that period.

In 1826 the two countries went to war again, with Britain once more refusing to assist Iran. This unequal contest ended two years later with the humiliating treaty of Turkmenchai. Iran was forced to cede further territory and pay 20m roubles in reparations – a crippling sum. According to Ali Ansari in his recent book, Confronting Iran, Iran’s betrayal and domination by the great powers of that time helps explain its present-day distrust of their successors.

Russian bullying continued into the modern era. In 1945, when the US and Britain agreed to end to their wartime occupation of Iran, the Soviet Union refused to withdraw its troops. Joseph Stalin sought instead to partition the country into two “people’s democratic republics”, one Azerbaijani, one Kurdish.

Stalin backed off only after intense pressure from Washington, in what is now seen as one of the first crises of the cold war. Ironically given later developments, Iran’s future as an independent nation state had been guaranteed by the Americans – who like the British and French before them, then set about maximising their influence over the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

Even the 1979-1981 siege of the US embassy in Tehran which lasted 444 days, following the Islamic revolution and the Shah’s overthrow, has an echo in 19th century Persian-Russian relations. After the Russian ambassador, Alexander Griboedov, gave sanctuary to the chief eunuch of the Shah’s harem, a valued spy, and two runaway Georgian concubines, an outraged mob surrounded his embassy. When guards fired on them, the crowd stormed the building. Griboedov and most of his staff were killed.

Speaking on Iranian television, Iran’s current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, assured Mr Putin of a more friendly welcome to Tehran this time around – and diplomatically glossed over this long history of affronts. “Relations between Iran and Russia have been influenced by outside forces at times but today both countries are determined to expand their ties to the highest level,” he said.

There was “natural unity” between the two, exemplified by their cooperation in building Iran’s nuclear plant at Bushehr and their refusal to do the bidding of western powers, Mr Ahmadinejad added. What was also plain, although not stated, was the Iranian leader’s gratification at the large hole blown by the visit in US-led attempts to isolate Tehran.

Mr Putin’s approach to Iran, underpinned as ever by Russia’s greater strength, is more canny. He insisted recently that there was no evidence that Iran was developing an atomic weapon and has cast himself as a Disraeli-style “honest broker” in the nuclear dispute with the US. He gave another warning today of the unacceptability of military action. And he knows his Tehran sojourn again demonstrates the revival of a central Russian role in global affairs.

Citing the North Korean case, Mr Putin said at the weekend that diplomatic engagement with Iran was the only way forward. “We were patient and looked for solutions and it looks like we are finding them. The same has to be done in the case of the Iranian nuclear programme … Can we do it without having a dialogue with the Iranian people? I think it’s impossible.”

All the same, Mr Putin is hardly falling over himself to help Iran become a nuclear weapons state, if that is what Tehran is indeed trying to do. Completion of the Bushehr project has been repeatedly put back, nuclear fuel deliveries from Russia have been withheld and Moscow has infuriated Tehran by claiming not to have been paid.

In short, Russia is playing both sides against the middle, using current tensions with the west to advance its national interest. Mr Putin’s pragmatism should not be mistaken for friendship. After all, Russia’s power games in Iran are hardly new. Just look at the history.