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Russian-Iranian Relations Cool

Russia is helping Iran build a large-scale nuclear reactor, while giving it crucial support in the United Nations. But many experts say relations between the two countries have cooled.

Russia is one of Iran's largest trading partners. It provides Tehran with weapons -- such as submarines and anti-aircraft missile systems -- as well as consumer goods, such as cars and appliances. Moscow is also building a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, in southwestern Iran.

On the political front, Moscow has been a strong supporter of Iran, opposing any tough United Nations sanctions against Tehran over its alleged nuclear weapons program.

But experts such as Gordon Hahn, who has taught and written extensively about Russia for decades, say despite close economic and political ties, relations between Russia and Iran have been worsening. "Russia has finally woken up to the fact that Iran was trying to ensnare Moscow in a very close relationship. I think the main tenet of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's foreign policy is that Russia should have an independent foreign policy," says Hahn.

For his part, Marshall Goldman, a Russia expert at Harvard University, says relations are not as close as they were in earlier times. "In the Soviet era, they would have embraced Iran full speed ahead [i.e., without question], 'Do whatever you want to do. We'll support you and indeed even help you train terrorists.' I don't think that's the condition that they are in these days," says Goldman.

Nuclear Cooperation Slows

As an example of eroding relations between Moscow and Tehran, experts point to Russia's decision to delay completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. German firms began building the plant in the mid-1970s, but construction was suspended following Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Russia picked up the project in 1995 and it was supposed to be completed in the next few weeks.

But former Russian foreign ministry official Nikolai Sokov, now at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, says earlier this year Moscow announced a delay because Iran was not paying for the work done -- a charge Tehran has denied. "In January, there was this scandal over the non-payment and the scandal has continued. There were several attempts to solve the problem of non-payment - none really worked. Well, a closer look suggests that actually, it's not really non-payment -- that the Russians are trying to find ways to postpone the completion of the station."

Iran's Nuclear Ambitions

Sokov and others say Moscow is postponing completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant for political reasons. Analysts say Moscow is using Bushehr as leverage to try to force Tehran to be more open about its uranium enrichment program. The United States and the European Union believe Iran's uranium enrichment program is intended to build nuclear arms. Tehran says it only wants to use its enriched uranium for peaceful purposes, such as to produce electricity.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, speaking through an interpreter, repeated that view during an exchange with students last week [9/24/07] at Columbia University in New York. "The technology we have is for enrichment below the level of five percent and any level below five percent is solely for providing fuel to power plants."

The Iranian president went on to say that Tehran does not believe in building nuclear weapons. But Mr. Ahmadinejad's statement did not persuade Western leaders such as French President Nicholas Sarkozy.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly [9/25/07] and speaking through an interpreter, Mr. Sarkozy strongly opposed Iran obtaining nuclear weapons. "There will be no peace in the world if the international community falters in the face of the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Iran is entitled to nuclear power for civilian purposes. But if we allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, we would incur an unacceptable risk to the stability of the region and the stability of the world," Sarkozy said.

In an effort to get Iran to renounce its uranium enrichment program, the United Nations Security Council passed several resolutions imposing sanctions on Tehran. Analysts say as another sign of displeasure with the Iranian government, Russia agreed to the sanctions -- although it considerably watered down the initial punitive measures wanted by the United States and France.

Former Russian foreign ministry official Nikolai Sokov says Moscow offered a compromise whereby Russia would enrich uranium on its soil and then send it to Tehran. "That seemed for the Russians as a nice compromise that would still sort of keep the nuclear program in Iran going and at the same time would remove the objections that the United States and the European Union had," says Sokov. "But the Iranians rejected that compromise and openly said that: 'Well, we cannot really trust the Russians that they would still send us fuel for the [Bushehr] power station.' And the Russians went back completely mad at them."

A Test for Relations

Experts say the upcoming meeting in Tehran of the Caspian Sea nations in mid-October will be a test of Russian-Iranian relations. Russian President Vladimir Putin will attend and is expected to meet with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Once again, Gordon Hahn: "Maybe Russia will propose once more to Ahmadinejad a concept of having the Russians enrich uranium for atomic plants based in Iran as a compromise to get out of the situation, the confrontation with the West over nuclear enrichment."

Many analysts say it will also be interesting to see if Moscow accepts more punitive international sanctions against Tehran as relations between the two sides continue to cool.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.