The Caucasus crisis, precipitated by Russia's incursion into Georgia, created the possibility of a grand bargain between US and Iranian leaders, under which Tehran could have made a deal on its nuclear program in return for a commitment to develop Iran into a transit state for Caspian Basin energy. The window of opportunity for such a deal now seems to be closed, as Iranian and American experts say the Bush administration never seriously pursued Iranian diplomatic overtures to explore such a trade-off.
Over the past two weeks, Iran has made cautious moves in a pro-Moscow direction after staking out a decidedly neutral stance immediately following the outbreak of Georgian-Russian hostilities. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The shift toward Russia became evident in late August, when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Tajikistan, and expressed support for the Kremlin's version of events. "We think Georgia's leaders should be more in control of the situation and they should stop countries from outside the region from interfering," the Iranian president said, clearly referring to Tbilisi's close strategic relationship to Washington.
Iran's neutral stance for most of August, according to policy experts in Tehran, was a signal to the United States that Iranian leaders were interested in probing a diplomatic deal. For a short while, it seemed as though the Bush administration might seize the opportunity, as rumors swirled in Tehran that the United States would soon open an interest section in Iran. But now it appears that the initial optimism surrounding a possible new departure in US-Iranian relations was unfounded.
"Iran was hoping that withholding support to the Russians could tempt the Americans into offering something substantial to us," said an Iranian expert, speaking to EurasiaNet on condition of anonymity. "Nothing of the kind has materialized -- if you leave out the fact that [US Vice President Dick] Cheney refrained from lashing out at Iran when he was visiting Azerbaijan and Georgia on September 3-4]."
It would seem that Iran misjudged the Bush administration's desire to open an interest section in Tehran. US officials floated the idea last July, but on September 7, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani told MPs that "there is no movement on that front that we know of."
According to Gary Sick, a New York-based expert on Iran and a former member of US National Security Council under Carter and Reagan Administrations, if the Iranians were indeed waiting for a US reward, their expectations were unrealistic. "On the whole many people in Washington were probably happy that Iran was taking [a neutral] position. But that was in Iran's own interest," Sick told EurasiaNet. "After all, Russia was using its military might against an independent country that had normal diplomatic and trade relations with Iran."
Iran stands to gain immediate benefits from closer ties with Moscow. As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia is in position to veto any attempt to expand economic sanctions against Iran made in connection with the ongoing dispute over Tehran's nuclear program. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Closer relations would also facilitate Iran's purchase of sophisticated Russian military hardware, such as S-300 surface-to-air missiles.
In the coming weeks, Iran is expected to press Russia to complete the Bushehr Nuclear reactor, a project that has dragged on for years. On August 1, Russia's ambassador to Tehran, Alexander Sadovnikov, announced that Moscow was committed to finishing the plant "in the shortest possible time." The envoy went on to hint that the reactor could be operational "by the end of 2008."
Russia has long treated Iran as an ally of convenience. But Sick said Moscow is now more interested in retaining Tehran's support, given the renewal of Cold War-like tension between Russia and the West. "Russia is playing a more active part in world's politics and that's where Iran could play a constructive role for them as far as the Middle East is concerned," Sick said.
While there are major incentives for Iran and Russia to promote closer cooperation, the two countries also face some large diplomatic stumbling blocks. Most importantly, the two countries' energy ambitions sharply diverge: Russia is intent on monopolizing Caspian Basin energy exports, while Iran would like to develop into an alternate route for energy being shipped from the Caspian Basin to Europe. Russia's incursion into Georgia served to heighten Iran's ambitions in this regard by casting security doubts upon existing routes connecting Azerbaijan and Turkey. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Past experience is prompting Iran to proceed cautiously. Russian support for Iranian policy goals has never been firm. A late August commentary posted by the Iranian website Tabnak, which is controlled by former commanders of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, perhaps best summarizes the Iranian stance. It calls on policy makers in Tehran to take "maximum care" and show "diligence" in pursuing closer ties to Russia.
"The possibility of Russia using 'the Iran card' in its relations with the West exists," the commentary said. "Georgia has no winning cards to offer us, but if Russia is to be supported tacitly, we must first ensure that it (Russia) would not sell us out to the West."
Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.