Russia Must Reassess Its Iran Policy

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Four days after his controversial reelection on June 12, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was cordially hosted by the Russian government -- making Moscow the first foreign government to host the embattled hardliner. The June 16 visit to Yekaterinburg - a Russian city nestled in the Ural Mountains where this year's meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit was hosted - was a gift to Ahmadinejad. By supporting the Iranian President, Russia gave credibility to his supporter's claims of western influence in the country's domestic upheaval.

On the surface, Moscow's official reason for inviting President Ahmadinejad seemed logical. Hoping to avoid the same accusations of external meddling and mischief, Russia was quick to recognize the controversial leader.

However, this decision was viewed differently in Tehran by anti- Ahmadinejad supporters; Moscow supports Ahmadinejad because an isolated Iran works to its advantage. As long as Iran remains a pariah state, Moscow can use Iran's isolation to sell them their outdated jets and secondhand products, which other countries would not buy from them. This theory has its merits. According to BBC Persian, Russia's exports to Iran since 2006 have more than doubled from $864 million to $2.5 billion in 2008.

Moscow's ties to Tehran's hardliners balances out Washington in the region.

Furthermore, with its policy of defending Ayatollah Khamenei's administration, Russia has become an invaluable ally to Supreme Leader. In fact, after Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev are considered to be the second most influential voices inside Iran. This influence was put on display during Putin's visit to Tehran in November 2007. All he had to do was to place a proposal regarding the nuclear standoff on Khamenei's table. In less than a day, current Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani and President Ahmadinejad were at each other's throats. The dispute ended with Larijani's resignation as the Secretary General of the Supreme National Security Council; signaling that Russia's position in Tehran is taken very seriously.

This influence, as useful as it has been to Moscow, has now started to carry a price. Chants of "death to Russia" are heard more often in Tehran by demonstrators. Although the reformists seem to be the underdog at the moment, their cries should not be ignored by President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. The longer the demonstrations continue, the more the opposition's leverage will increase. Should they come out as the victor, Russia is likely to find its economic and political power in Iran seriously diluted.

Russia would be wise to take a more wait-and-see approach in its Iran policy. Should Moscow identify itself exclusively with the Ahmadinejad camp, it may not only hurt its position in Iran, it could also hurt its position in the region. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt want to see Ahmadinejad weakened, but if they see Moscow backing his administration, this could damage Russia's position in the Middle East.

In fact, demonstrating a more pragmatic influence over Iran would likely enable Russia to calm jittery nerves in some European capitals. After its war against Georgia some European countries, despite predicted energy shortages, are trying to reduce their dependence on Russian gas due to associated political risk. This is one of the reasons why some countries, such as the United Kingdom, are trying to rely more on renewable energies. Maintaining a balanced approach regarding Iran could in the long run reduce the political risk associated with buying Russian gas.

Western countries could also do their share to entice Russia away from the Ahmadinejad-Khamenei camp. Although concerns about Russia's policies and activities regarding Georgia persist, nevertheless, providing potential carrots to Moscow could encourage those in Russia who want a more balanced approach towards Iran. Should U.S. negotiations with Iran fail, strengthened relations with Russia over the Iranian question could make it easier for the U.S. to convince the Security Council to impose tougher sanctions.

This month marked the 10th anniversary of Vladimir Putin's rise to power. Since taking office he has used a number of levers to improve Russia's position with the West. Russia's huge oil and gas supply - which the energy starved West badly needs - has been one of those powerful levers. The other has been Russia's influence in the Caucasus. Moscow scored two major victories in this important region last year, the first being its overwhelming victory over Georgia, the second was Moscow's promise of massive aid to Kyrgyzstan. That convinced the Kyrgyz government in Bishkek to close the U.S. airbase on its soil.

When it comes to Iran, Moscow should review its options with much care. Any misstep could erode many years of hard work and leverage building throughout the region, thus leaving the Russian Bear in a far weaker global position.

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