The Russian-Iranian axis in the making

The Kremlin thoughtfully picked Monday for President Vladimir Putin to formally sign the decree ordering the transfer of S-300 missiles to Iran. On the same day, Ali Shamkhani, formerly Iran’s Defence Minister and presently the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council [SNSC] was on a visit to Moscow to attend, interestingly, a meeting of the national security councils of the countries belonging to Shanghai Cooperation Organization [SCO].

The SNSC works directly under the supervision of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which makes Shamkhani a powerful figure in Iran’s security and foreign policy establishment. In sheer optics, the announcement of the momentous Russian decision on Monday afternoon just four hours before Putin received at his official residence at Novo-Ogaryovo the top SCO officials carried much symbolism. Putin’s decision will be understood as an assertion of Russian power all over the SCO territories. Two, Iran’s admission as a full SCO member is now merely a matter of time.

Looking back, the path-breaking visit to Moscow in end-January by the Supreme Leader’s advisor on international affairs Ali Akbar Velayati (formerly Iran’s foreign minister for sixteen years from 1981 to 1997) had aimed at a reset of the compass of Russian-Iranian strategic partnership. (The SCO membership issue was on Velayati’s agenda.) A commentary featured by Iran’s official news agency IRNA at that time assessed that Velayati’s mission had a two-fold objective: a) to prepare a trajectory for Iran’s policies in a probable scenario if the negotiations with the world powers on the nuclear issue were “to hit a deadlock”; and, b) to convince the Russian leadership that Iran’s détente with the West will never come at the cost of the expansion of relations with Russia, which is a cornerstone of Iran’s strategies.

Of course, the Kremlin would have taken serious note of Velayati’s message, because it de facto originated from Supreme Leader Khamenei himself. Putin received Velayati in a mark of respect. (For the benefit of the uninitiated, it was Velayati who worked shoulder to shoulder with the then Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov to bring to an end in 1997 the Tajik civil war, which was a bleeding wound for the young Russian Federation.) Suffice it to say, Khamenei couldn’t have deputed a better person who enjoyed carried the Kremlin’s trust and confidence to convey to Putin his personal commitment to renewing Iran’s strategic bonds with Russia.

Obviously, Iranians were in the loop when Putin signed the decree on Monday. Shamkhani promptly expressed the hope that the delivery of the S-300 systems will take place within the year. The Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said that the delivery may begin any moment – “The decree stipulates… no delays. It comes to force on the day it was signed [Monday].”

The Kremlin’s “Executive Order” has been carefully worded to warn that Moscow will not tolerate any interdiction of the consignment on transfer to Iran by extra-regional powers. It says that the transfer will be “via Russian territory (including by air)… using ships or aircraft flying the Russian Federation flag.” The wording suggests that the transfer of the missile systems might in all probability take place across the Caspian Sea.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rubbed salt into the American wound by assuring Washington that Moscow’s decision is “in the interests of support for consolidated efforts of the six international negotiators to stimulate a maximally constructive process of talks on settlement of the situation around Iran’s nuclear program.” Of course, Lavrov, who is famous for his sardonic sense of humor, explained that this was after all “Russia’s separate voluntary embargo”, which Moscow is now merely lifting — meaning, it is nobody else’s business.

Meanwhile, Moscow has done its work on the abacus. Lavrov said: “S-300 is an air defense missile system, which is of a purely defensive nature. It is not designed for attacks and will not put at risk the security of any regional state, including Israel, of course.

“Meanwhile, for Iran, taking into account the very tense situation in the region surrounding it, modern air defense systems are very important. This is in particular proven by an alarmingly fast development of events in the past week of the military situation around Yemen.”

Simply put, Moscow probably senses that given the dysfunctional American political system, President Barack Obama will find it almost impossible to deliver on the hugely important question of the lifting of the sanctions against Iran (which is an absolutely non-negotiable demand by Tehran) and that the nuclear talks are therefore likely entering shark-infested waters.

Curiously, Shamkhani didn’t sound too optimistic either when he told his Russian counterpart Nikolai Patrushev in Moscow yesterday, “Adoption of unconstructive (sic) positions and excessive demands by certain countries negotiating with Iran will slow the trend of reaching a comprehensive agreement.”

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Categories: Asia Times News & Features, M.K. Bhadrakumar, Middle East

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