Iran's friendship with Russia turns sour

Analysts question how close they are as Moscow backs tougher round of sanctions and fails to deliver an anti-aircraft missile system .

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TEHRAN // Iranian officials have voiced dismay at Russia for backing a US-led tougher round of sanctions against Tehran, and followed it by criticising Moscow for failing to deliver an anti-aircraft missile system that would enable Iran to guard its nuclear facilities against a US or Israeli strike.

The fallout has led some analysts to question the closeness of a relationship that previously appeared to be airtight. A draft sanctions resolution was submitted to the UN Security Council last Tuesday with the agreement of the five permanent council members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - as well as Germany. Russia, along with China, had previously been reluctant to back further sanctions.

Moreover, the draft submission came only a day after Iran had, in a joint declaration with Turkey and Brazil, agreed to send 1.2 tonnes of its low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Turkey in exchange for 120kg of medium-enriched uranium in the form of fuel rods for a Tehran research reactor. Tehran had hoped the agreement would draw Russian and Chinese support and preclude the formation of a consensus among world powers on a new sanctions resolution.

The strongest protest over Russia's decision to support the sanctions came from the President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who adopted a rare admonitory tone towards Moscow. "If I were in the Russian officials' shoes, I would be more careful in making remarks about this great neighbour of theirs," he told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Sunday. "The Tehran declaration [with Turkey and Brazil] has paved the way for interaction and we expect a neighbour and friendly country [Russia] to decisively defend the declaration and not allow other excuses to prevent constructive interaction."

The cause of the Security Council members' concern and their subsequent support for the US-proposed sanctions is Iran's refusal to stop uranium enrichment even after it agreed in the Brazil-Turkey deal to abandon its demand for a nuclear fuel swap to be made on Iranian soil. Critics in the US say Russian approval of the draft resolution was given in exchange for US concessions to Moscow. The US on Friday lifted bans against three Russian entities accused of helping Iran's nuclear programme, including the state arms exporter Rosoboronexport.

US officials dismissed such allegations. "This was not a quid pro quo, but the fact that Russia has improved its performance with respect to Iran has given us the confidence to take these steps," the US state department spokesman, PJ Crowley, was quoted by news agencies as saying. Lifting the ban on the arms exporter will allow Russia to deliver a long-delayed shipment of the S-300 anti-aircraft system worth several hundred million dollars to Iran.

Russian officials have said over the past week that new sanctions, if approved by the Security Council, will not affect current agreements - including the missile sale deal - between it and Iran, but the promises seem to have done little to convince Iranian officials of Russia's sincerity. "Refusal to deliver the S-300s will strike a blow to Russia's reputation as a reliable arms supplier," Mahmoud Reza Sadjadi, Iran's ambassador in Moscow, was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies yesterday.

"It would compel us to question Russia's reliability at such sensitive moments." Russia has also made new, conditional promises to kickstart the long-delayed operation of the 1000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power plant in August. "We are counting on the nuclear power station launching in August, if everything goes as planned," Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's atomic energy agency said last week.

Some Iranian analysts believe Russia will continue to be more open to the US' stance on Iran for strategic reasons. "The time when the US and Russia were threats to each other is somehow over," said a Tehran-based analyst on condition of anonymity. "Now both of them have realised that if they waste their energy and resources to fight each other, newly-emerged powers that are demanding their share of the world economy and politics will find a chance to take over."

The analyst said Iran has typically tried to secure Russian diplomatic support by countering the expansion of US influence in such former Soviet republics as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. "Tehran always hoped to undermine the US position there by strengthening the Russians against the Americans ? In return it hoped to be supported by Russia against the US." But, the analyst added: "This will, however, not affect relations with Russia considerably. Iran may complain about the Russian behaviour, but it can't afford to show too strong a reaction towards its powerful neighbour."

But some Iranians have called for Tehran to reassess its strategic alliance with Russia. "Russia's stance, which has become more transparent recently, will cause Iran not to put all its eggs in Russia's basket," Afshar Soleimani, a former Iranian diplomat, wrote in an article published by Iran Diplomacy, a reformist website. "If all Moscow's games and disloyalties, in return for all the concessions granted to it by Tehran in the region and the international scene, are taken into consideration, the twofold loss incurred on the Iranian nation will be more evident."