That seems to be the principle guiding foreign policy in Moscow and Tehran. Those two governments have much to be dissatisfied with in international politics, and have decided that together they have a better chance of getting the rest of the world to pay attention to them. It is an alliance of convenience at best, however. Long-term interests are likely to create friction between them. While the rest of the world should not ignore this relationship, making too much of a fuss is also a mistake.
The new friendship was in evidence this week as Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in Moscow. The two men began the four-day visit by signing a pair of agreements that call for more cooperation between their countries. The first set out general principles for the bilateral relationship, which includes, among other things, military cooperation. The second outlines principles to help resolve jurisdictional disputes over the resource-rich Caspian Sea. In a speech to the Russian Parliament later in the week, Mr. Khatami called for expanded ties in cultural, industrial and regional cooperation.
Friendly relations between Moscow and Tehran are not unprecedented. After the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Soviet and then Russian leaders cultivated Iran in an attempt to extend their influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf; then, too, the two governments were linked by a mutual desire to cause mischief for the United States.
In 1995, however, Washington held out an olive branch to Russia and persuaded Moscow to cut cooperation with Tehran. Mr. Putin formally abrogated a secret agreement to do that last year, and this week’s visit is the most tangible sign of Moscow’s new priorities.
Although no deals were signed during the visit, Russia is eager to resume arms sales to Iran. Tehran is reportedly interested in Russian air-defense missile systems and parts for fighter jets and armored vehicles. Rising oil prices have helped Russia’s ailing economy, but it still needs to diversify. Traditionally, arms sales have been a source of much-needed foreign currency. Last year, Russia exported $4 billion of arms, the highest amount since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Sales to Iran could add $1.5 billion to that figure.
Russia also promised to complete construction of a nuclear-power plant in Iran. That is a particular source of concern in the U.S., which worries that it could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Mr. Putin has said that neither the arms sales nor the nuclear deal will violate Russia’s international commitments or international law. That may be true, but as he can apparently void commitments at will it is an empty promise.
The obvious tie that binds Russia and Iran is the desire to expand their influence at the expense of the U.S. Both governments are concerned that the new administration in Washington is going to be less eager to expand ties with them. President George W. Bush has made it clear that he is more skeptical of Russia and will be less accommodating than was his predecessor, former President Bill Clinton. Mr. Khatami fears that Mr. Bush will be more reluctant than was Mr. Clinton to pursue the tenuous reconciliation that had begun between the U.S. and Iran. For both men, defying the U.S. also plays well to domestic audiences.
That is not their only common interest, though. Both governments would like to extend their influence in Central Asia and the Caspian Sea. Both view Afghanistan’s Taliban as a threat and want to contain its particular brand of Islamic fundamentalism.
Still, those interests are probably unable to sustain a long relationship. Tehran can buy arms from Moscow, but Russian industry needs far more capital, knowhow and markets than Iran can supply. While both governments have a common interest in seeing Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers locked out of Central Asia, Russia and Iran will still compete for influence in those capitals. And while Moscow may fear the Taliban’s brand of Islam right now, it is unlikely to welcome any form of religious fundamentalism. Tehran will be pressed to make cause with coreligionists in the region and that could sow the seeds of future conflict.
Those strains will become evident over time. Until then, the rest of the world should make clear to both governments that they are expected to abide by international commitments. Tweaking the U.S. is one thing; violating global standards is another. Countries like Japan can contribute by making clear their willingness to do business with law-abiding governments. The key is ending the zero-sum mind-set that guides thinking in Russia and Iran.
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