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A more predictable Iran

By PYOTR GONCHAROV, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   April 27, 2007 at 2:12 PM   |   Comments

MOSCOW, April 27 (UPI) -- Russian-Iranian relations are on the verge of a crisis, and not at all because of the problems with the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, for which Moscow and Tehran are blaming each other. This is rather a consequence.

The reasons behind a cool-off are different. Moscow has considerably hardened its stand on the Iranian nuclear program in the U.N. Security Council. It has backed a resolution on tougher sanctions against Iran in response to its refusal to stop all uranium enrichment efforts. Judging by Tehran's reaction, it did not expect Moscow to take this step despite its continuous appeals to satisfy the Security Council demands and return to the negotiating table.

How will the imminent crisis affect Russian-Iranian relations?

These relations are only discussed in the context of bilateral geopolitical interests and regional cooperation. It is the character of these contacts based on identical interests and mutual dependence that allows Tehran to talk about Russia and Iran as "strategic allies." Moscow is more reserved and prefers to speak about regional "strategic partnership."

Historically, Russia and Iran have been good neighbors and supported each other in the Caucasus, the Caspian region and Central Asia. Their interests in these regions do not clash but supplement each other.

Here is an eloquent example. In recent time, Iran has substantially escalated its economic expansion in Central Asia. Russia welcomes this process in its traditional sphere of interests. Unable to fully implement its interests in the whole region, Russia hopes that Iran's growing presence will keep the United States, Turkey and China away from Central Asia.

Identity of interests is particularly striking against the background of the U.S. attempts to carry out a Greater Central Asia Partnership for Cooperation and Development (GCAP). Washington has included Afghanistan and Pakistan in Central Asia's traditional states of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.

Whether the United States and Europe want it or not, this partnership is bound to oust Russia from the region in the foreseeable future. The authors of the project want trade and various economic projects to move southward and create an alternative to Russia's monopoly on the exports of hydrocarbons, electricity, cotton, etc. Thus, Iran, which has fallen from U.S. grace, is again becoming Russia's ally in Afghanistan.

As regards the Caspian region, Iran is the only nation that fully shares Russia's position on the Caspian Sea's international status, which completely rules out the presence of any non-regional countries in the area. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan hold a different position on this main issue. Other Caspian questions are not that important.

The two countries pursue the same policy in the Caucasus. Iran played a special role presiding over the Organization of the Islamic Conference at a time when the Kremlin's policy in Chechnya was in the worst crisis. It was largely under Iran's pressure that the OIC reluctantly agreed that Chechnya was Russia's domestic issue.

It would be surprising if Iran, a country with such significant population, resources and history, was not trying to occupy a befitting place in the region, a place reflecting its political weight and potential. Iran's ambitions are quite understandable, as well as its desire to turn from a passive onlooker into a key regional player.

While actively backing Iran's involvement in the resolution of regional problems, Moscow does not support expansion of strategic partnership to the entire Middle East, as Tehran would like to see it. It is hard to imagine the circumstances that would compel Moscow to support this. Russia would like Tehran to conduct a more reasonable policy that would suit better the Arab nations.

Now Moscow should decide what it values more in its policy towards Iran in the near future. On the one hand, Moscow is vitally interested in a strategic partnership with Iran in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Caspian region; on the other, there is a real threat to the nuclear non-proliferation regime and the emergence of a nuclear Iran, which would lead to a confrontation with the United States and Arab nations in the Middle East.

Most analysts believe that for all the obvious allied potential of the two countries, a more moderate and predictable Iran would be a better partner for Russia.

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(Pyotr Goncharov is a political commentator with RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2007 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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