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Guest Thinkers

Iran and Russia Rethinking Their Relationship

It looks like the Iranians have balked on their promise to ship lowly enriched uranium to Russia. One wonders if the whole thing was a ruse to tamp down the criticism that followed Pittsburgh (when it was revealed Iran was operating a secret nuclear facility)—if in fact they never had any intention of letting the Russians enrich their uranium in the first place. After all, a similar proposal was tabled a few years back, and the Iranians scoffed at it then, too. Are Iranian-Russian relations heading south?

The Iranians, to put it mildly, do not trust the Russians. Take Bushehr, the multi-billion-dollar nuclear reactor the Russians have helped them build. The facility, which is intended for civilian purposes, is long overdue. It was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2009 but keeps getting held up. The Iranians accuse Moscow of delaying the plant for political reasons. The Russians point to technical snafus. “This is not about politics,” Sergei Lavov, Russia’s foreign minister, insisted. Yet Russia is also behind on the delivery of an air defense system.   

Relations between the two countries have fizzled in recent years. Russians I’ve spoken to say the Iranians are too unpredictable, their foreign policy too erratic. The Russian government was reportedly livid at the news that Iran had an undisclosed secret reactor. Again, the Iranians are no less suspicious in return. As Karim Sadjadpour told a Council on Foreign Relations meeting a few years back, in words that ring even truer today: “There’s a deep sense of mistrust in Iran vis-a-vis the Russians, for historical reasons. I think they don’t even like working with the Russians. When you talk to senior Iranian officials, they would much prefer working with the Americans or the Europeans.”

The Russians have more leverage than we do, as a result of their energy ties and the arms trade between the two countries. Yet with Dmitri Medvedev warming to economic sanctions and Washington and Moscow using a good-cop-bad-cop routine to rope in the Iranians, Tehran must be asking itself: Who’s the good cop and who’s the bad cop?


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