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Russia and Iran: Heading toward a political earthquake?

Sergey Strokan is a journalist, essayist and a poet.

Published time: August 15, 2012 09:11

­‘Druzya poznayutsa v bede’ (A friend in need is a friend indeed) – so goes an old Russian saying. As if to prove the point, Russian President Vladimir Putin was quick to respond to the news of the devastating earthquakes that struck Iran this weekend, killing 250 people and injuring over 2,000. In a message to his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Putin expressed condolences to the families of the victims and voiced Russia’s readiness to assist Iran with rescue operations in the quake-stricken area.

The very foundation of Russian-Iranian partnership these days is put under a critical test by a fast-approaching political earthquake: Tehran is suing Moscow for $4 billion at the Geneva Court of Arbitration. The reason behind the suit is Moscow’s suspension of the delivery of Russian-made S-300 missile defense systems to Iran under a 2007 contract, due to the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program.

While the legal foundations of the lawsuit are dubious, it is worth mentioning that the size of the claim demanded by the Tehran is also confusing. It is five times bigger than the total cost of the five S-300 systems – $800 million – that never reached Iranian shores.

At this point, it is important to note why the 2007 deal, signed by Russia’s major arms trading company Rosoboronexport and Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization, was not fulfilled. The fulfillment of contract’s obligations was made impossible after the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1929 of June 9, 2010, imposing a global ban on the sale of sophisticated arms to Iran.

It took then-President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev some three months more to sign a decree “On the measures to implement the UNSC resolution 1929” of September 22, 2010, prohibiting the sale of the S-300 system to Iran. Russia refunded Iran an advance payment of $167 million, but the saga was still far from over. Tehran felt offended and betrayed, and decided to teach Russia a lesson, in a move that raised eyebrows in Moscow.

As for the troubled S-300 deal, it couldn’t have been an easy decision for President Medvedev: Until that very moment, Moscow had always fulfilled its dealings with Tehran, demonstrating a remarkable resilience to Western pressure. The only exception was the Gore-Chernomyrdin memorandum of 1995, signed during the time of President Yeltsin and his friend Bill, but that is a sad episode and an old story. Military-technical cooperation has been one of the pillars of Russian-Iranian partnership for decades.

The Security Council resolution of June 2010 forced Russia into a dilemma: To stick to the arms contract with Iran and keep its reputation as a reliable partner at the expense of her reputation in the world community, or to abide by the Security Council decision at the risk of angering Iran.

While a crowd of Iranian lobbyists and hardline nationalists in Moscow argued Russia should ignore the resolution, the Kremlin took a different path. By deciding to terminate the 2007 arms contract with Iran, Moscow behaved like a responsible global power. The decision was driven by the necessity of not allowing the erosion of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and international security, and not to allow petty national egoism to rush the country into making a fast buck at any cost. Challenging the resolution would have undermined the credibility of Russia’s foreign policy in the eyes of her partners in the ‘5 plus 1’ group (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany).

It is also worth noting that by being a vocal opponent of the sanctions against Iran, Russia was trying to block any overreactions, like the military intimidation of Iran or the imposition of crippling sanctions. The latest proof came this week when Russia’ Foreign Ministry, in a strongly worded statement, criticized the new US sanctions against Iran, calling every measure taken beyond those approved by the UN Security Council "overt blackmail" and a "crude contradiction of international law."

It seems Moscow has finally found itself between a rock and a hard place in its dealings with Washington and Tehran. While Washington was putting more pressure on Moscow, Tehran was stubbornly going its way, ignoring the Kremlin’s pleas to cooperate with IAEA and the 5+1.  

But how wise is it on the part of the President Ahmadinejad to put pressure on President Putin, trying to sue ‘a friend in need?’ The controversy between Moscow and Tehran comes just days before a crucial round of talks with members of the 5+1 group slated for next week in Vienna. There is some reason to believe that by suing Russia, Tehran stands to lose more.

As Russia’s Kommersant daily reported, quoting its Kremlin source, Russia might adopt a tougher stance on the Iranian nuclear problem unless Iran retracts its lawsuit in Geneva. “We have already made it clear to Iran that lawsuits are not helping the development of our relations,” the source said.

So, it is not only President Ahmadinejad who tolerates no pressure.

So does President Putin.

­Sergey Strokan, for RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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