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Tuesday, 13 March, 2001, 14:23 GMT
Analysis: Iran and Russia forge closer links
President Khatami and President Putin
Common economic and military interests are driving the countries closer
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visit to Russia follows the abandonment of a Russian agreement with the US not to supply Iran with weapons. Jim Muir examines the increasingly close military and economic ties between the two countries.

At its annual military parade, Iran has been proudly displaying its medium range missile, the Shihab 3.

The missile has stirred concern in Washington and elsewhere because it could be used to hit Israel.

It was based on North Korean technology, though the Americans believe Russia was also involved. Late last year, Moscow unilaterally scrapped a secret agreement with Washington not to sell conventional weapons to Iran.

That cleared the way for an important visit to Tehran by the Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev in December. The two sides are now discussing huge arms deals.

Common interest

Nothing is expected to be signed during President Mohammed Khatami's Moscow trip, though he does have his defence minister with him.

Zhan Shikeebi, an Iranian expert on Russian affairs, believes such sales are strongly in the interest of both countries.

"Iran would like to rebuild and strengthen their army after losses in the Iran-Iraq war," he said. "So we're looking at all types of hardware from tanks, anti-aircraft, aeroplanes. Billions of dollars of arms deals are being discussed at this point between the two countries, but not signed yet."

Iranian tank soldier
Iran wants to upgrade its weaponry
The relationship is proving increasingly important to Russia.

Mr Shikeebi added: "Putin wants to reform the Russian army, which will cost more money in the short term, as well as put money into research and development in order to renovate the technological base of the army as well as gain more arms markets in the world. In order to do this, he needs huge arms deals, with Iran, China and India at this point."

Water and oil

So military co-operation is clearly an important part of the overall relationship between the two countries, which is historically complicated.

But there are many other elements involved too. Above all, perhaps, trying to reach agreement on sharing the waters, oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea, which they and three former Soviet Union states border.


The president needs to create the image that he is able in foreign policy, although he has not been that successful in domestic politics

Nasser Hadiyan, Tehran University
It is an extremely tricky issue. But Nasser Hadiyan, professor of politics at Tehran University, says it is important for President Khatami to help reach a solution.

"I believe it is politically very important," he said. "The president needs to create the image that he is able in foreign policy, although he has not been that successful in domestic politics. And also if Iran does not get involved in a very speedy way, someone else will try to utilise the Caspian Sea at the expense of Iran."

Easier said than done. Moscow wants to divide the Caspian Sea on the seabed, and to keep surface water in joint and common use.

This is unacceptable to Tehran. Iranian experts say there will be no agreement if Moscow does not compromise on its position.

Pressure for agreement

There are strong pressures pushing for a Caspian agreement, but it will be a surprise if president Khatami's visit produces a breakthrough.


Iran has always been weary of having a strong Russian influence. Russia does not want to see a strong Iran, because it wants no competitors. In my opinion, it's a tactical relationship

Zhan Shikeebi, Iranian expert on Russian affairs
There are many other issues to talk about, though: Technology transfer, nuclear energy, education, Afghanistan - all elements in a wider relationship which is definitely improving.

But Mr Shikeebi believes the United States, which views all of this with great suspicion, would be wrong to see this as the emergence of a strategic axis between Moscow and Tehran because in the long term, the interests of each side are contradictory.

"Russia wants to establish her influence over the central Asian states, over the Caspian and the Caucasus," said Mr Shikeebi.

"Iran has always been weary of having a strong Russian influence. Russia does not want to see a strong Iran, because it wants no competitors. In my opinion, it's a tactical relationship."

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See also:

12 Mar 01 | Middle East
Russia backs Iran nuclear programme
28 Dec 00 | Middle East
Russia and Iran open 'new chapter'
06 Dec 00 | Middle East
US warns on Iran arms plan
09 Mar 01 | Middle East
Iran prospects for Caspian oil
15 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Russia
20 Dec 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Iran
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