Russian involvement, continued with the establishment of the short-lived Persion socialist Soviet Republic in 1920, followed by the short-lived Republic of Mahabad, the last effort by the Soviet Russia to establish a communist republic in Iran. In 1941, as the Second World War raged, Soviet Russia and Great Britain launched the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, ignoring Tehran’s plea for neutrality.
The end of the Second World War brought the start of American dominance in Iran’s political arena, and with an anti- Soviet Cold War brewing, the US quickly moved to convert Iran into an anti-communist bloc, thus ending Russian influence on Iran for years to come.
During the Iran-Iraq war, the erstwhile USSR supplied Baghdad with large amounts of conventional arms. Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini was deemed principally incompatible with the communist ideals of the Soviet Union, leaving the secular Saddam as an ally of Moscow.
After the war, especially with the disintegration of the USSR, Russia- Iran relations marked a sudden increase in diplomatic and commercial ties and Tehran even began purchasing weapons from Russia. By the mid 1990s, Russia had agreed to continue work on developing Iran’s nuclear programme with plans to finish constructing the nearly 20-year delayed nuclear reaction plant of Bushehr.
In 2005, Russia was the seventh largest trading partner of Iran with 5.33 per cent of all exports to Iran originating from Russia. Trade between the two countries kept on increasing.
The noticeable thing is that Russia and Iran also share a common interest in limiting the political influence of the US in the Central Asia. This common interest has led the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation to extend to Iran observer status in 2005, and full membership in 2006. Iran’s relations with the organisation, which is dominated by Russia and China, represent the most extensive diplomatic ties Tehran has shared since the 1979 revolution.
However, the solidity of Russia-Iran relations remains to be seen and tested. Russia is increasingly becoming dependent on its economic ties with the West, and is, gradually becoming vulnerable to western pressures in trying to curb its relations with Tehran.
Unlike previous years in which Iran’s air fleet were entirely western made, Iran’s Air Force and civilian air fleet are increasingly becoming Russian builts as the US and Europe continue to maintain sanctions on Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterport Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have signed an agreement on the Bushehr nuclear power station in Iran. The first nuclear power station in Bushehr was scheduled to start operations in Sept. 2007, but the start was been delayed due to a dispute between Russian contractors and Iran over the terms of payment.
The Bushehr plant was expected to become operational in the summer of 2008, producing half its 2,000 MW capacity of electricity.
In Dec. 2007, the Russian company which is building the Bushehr reactor, delivered the first batch of low-enriched uranium-235 under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In Jan. 2007, the fourth and fifth shipment of nuclear fuel came from Russia for a power plant being constructed near Tehran.
In April 2008, Iran prepared a package of proposals that covered a nuclear dispute with the West and other issues.
A pioneering visit to Tehran by the President Putin had been seen as a challenging new development with important strategic repercussions. As was widely noted, Putin was the first ruler from Moscow to visit Iran after Josef Stalin in 1943, who went for a famous wartime conference with President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Putin’s visit took place at a time when Iran’s nuclear plans had attracted ominous attention and wide criticism in the West, especially the US. Renewed efforts are on the horizon to push through strengthened sanctions by the UN Security Council against Iran, whose nuclear programme is regarded by the US and its allies as military in purpose.
Putin said that Iran should be permitted to pursue its peaceful nuclear programme. This could imply that the Programme is indeed peaceful for all intents and purposes, and certainly did not hold out any threat or warning. His words could give Iran some breathing space and encourage diplomatic activity at a time when there are frequent reiterations of the US determination to stop Iran at all costs.
The US Defence Secretary reiterated that all options are on the table, the then Vice-President Dick Chiney spoke of international action to stop Iran, and the President George W. Bush raised the fear a nuclear-armed Iran could lead to the Third World War.
Viewed against these statements, Russia is indeed on a different level. Moscow evidently has no clear information to corroborate the charge that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme, and after the Weapons ‘of Mass Destruction (WMDs) fiasco in Iraq, few would give automotive credence to what the US is stating on the subject.
As Iran’s leading partner in its civilian nuclear project, Russia may well believe that it has better access to Tehran’s, thinking and future plans that any other foreign country.
President Putin’s visit to Tehran projected a more assertive and capable Russia that was ready to play a bigger role in its own region. It has been a slow revival after the Soviet collapse that forced Moscow to draw in its horns and watch more or less helplessly as its neighbours in central Asia and the Caucasus went outside its orbit.
In recent months however, serious differences between these countries, Russia and Iran have become visible on a number of issues, not Iran alone. The eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the US decision to extend its anti-missile defences into countries on the Russian border has revived half-buried fears from Cold War days.
The missile treaties that placed restraints on these two major holders of lethal weaponry have been called into question. The visits to Moscow by senior US leaders, including the Secretary of State, have emphasised rather than narrowed the breach. This is not to suggest that any breakdown is in the offing, only to point to the more complex environment of today in which national interests are being pursed.
A resurgent Russia has pushed itself back into the reckoning in the geo-strategic calculations relating to the Caspian and Central Asia. This is one of the important outcomes of President Putin’s visit to Iran.
Besides pressing the question of nuclear developments in Iran, the availability of abundant oil and natural gas in the region will ensure that it remains a focus of constant international attention.
India already draws much of its oil requirements from Iran and is bidding hard to obtain natural gas from there and from its neighbour Turkmenistan. It must, therefore, watch these developments closely and be careful about the future trends in the region.
In a balance-of-power world, it is up to Iran to engage Russia in a fruitful partnership and shape it to accept the new situation. How Iran responds to the new challenge and opportunity with fresh ideas and ability to translate them into a consensus for action, will to a great extent determine Moscow and Tehran relations at least for the near future.