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Wary partners in Central Asia.

AS THE WAR of words between Washington and Tehran continued in late March with Warren Christopher the US secretary of state, describing Iran as "an international outlaw," Russia's foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, paid a brief but high-profile visit to Tehran which included a lengthy meeting with President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani. Kozyrev's talks, according to Russian sources in his delegation, were aimed at establishing a "strategic partnership," between Moscow and Tehran to achieve and maintain stability in Central Asia.

Official statements on the visit made much of the common interests that Russia and Iran have in the region, particularly regarding the Caspian Sea, and the need for greater economic cooperation to assure future development, as well as their common aim of restoring regional stability. Kozyrev said that the presence in his delegation of Moscow's Friday prayers leaders was an indication of Russian interest in also expanding what he called "cultural and spiritual cooperation".

But with Moscow becoming increasingly concerned about Iran's growing economic political and religious links with the neighbouring former Soviet republics, observers saw the underlying purpose of Kozyrev's visit as an attempt by Russia to forge closer ties with Tehran in a bid to deter it from harming Moscow's interests in Central Asia. An Arab diplomat based in the Gulf was quoted as saying that "the truth is Iran is the stronger |of the two countries~ in the Muslim republics and closer to them than the moderate trend. Moscow knows that Iran plays heavily in the Muslim republics. Russia has enough troubles of its own and sees it better to have a dialogue and closer ties with Iran."

In his talks with Kozyrev, President Rafsanjani told the Russian minister that Muslims in the former Soviet republics should be reassured of their rights. "Given the large Muslim populations of such areas, Muslims should not feel that following the collapse of Communism in what used to be the Soviet Union, there are still certain powers seeking to undermine them," Rafsanjani declared. "This can in the long run lead to Muslims losing their trust in and sincerity towards these governments and can be finally detrimental to the region and the whole world."

Russia and Iran have drawn up a declaration of the principles of cooperation between their two countries, which will be signed at a future summit between President Rafsanjani and Yeltsin, though no date has yet been set for this. They also agreed to hold regular political consultations and to waive visa requirements for diplomats.

A joint statement said the two countries would continue defence and technical cooperation. Mindful of growing alarm in the West and among the Gulf states over Iran's rearmament programme, which includes the purchase of Russian submarines, the statement added that such cooperation "is not aimed against any nation in the region and is simply for defence purposes."

Commenting on Kozyrev's visit, the Tehran Times said that while ties between Iran and Russia were already "on very solid ground", the two countries should strive to eliminate myriad bureaucratic regulations which impede the improvement of economic relations and the growth of trade. In a remark that could equally well apply to Iran itself as it faces the prospect of increasing isolation under US diplomatic pressure on its Western trading partners, the Tehran Times added: "The Russian leaders have by now realised that they cannot rely too much on aid and cooperation from the Western countries."

Kozyrev said his task had been to demonstrate Moscow's solidarity with the Iranian president's reformist course. "There is no doubt that Rafsanjani and the foreign minister, |Ali Akbar~ Velayati are representatives of the moderate wing. They are trying to move away from tough Islamic fundamentalism. But it must not be forgotten that there is a second stratum, a shadowy stage on which completely different forces operate."

The Russian foreign minister's first visit to Tehran, at a time when Tehran's relations with the West have taken a turn for the worse, has focused attention on whether Russia's aims and intentions in the Gulf region are exclusively economic, and to what extent they continue to be influenced by strategic and geopolitical considerations. The Moscow newspaper Izvestisa commented: "The Western capitals cannot fail to ask: How far could Russia's cooperation with the Iranian regime go?"
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Title Annotation:Russia and Iran
Publication:The Middle East
Date:May 1, 1993
Words:709
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