A recent trip to Moscow by a top Iranian official has served to solidify existing cooperation agreements between Russia and Iran. While Israel and the United States have often criticized Russia for such cooperation -- one result of which is the intended construction of a large nuclear power plant in southwestern Iran -- Iran for its part is perhaps guilty of subordinating a greater ideology for economic and perhaps military gain.
Israel and the United States are reportedly worried that Russia's cooperation with Iran extends beyond certain economic accords and that Russia is helping Iran develop nuclear weapons capability. The Associated Press reported on Nov. 22 that Israeli officials, based on intelligence reports, believe Iran could develop nuclear weapons in the next five years.
Protests against the latest meetings between Iranian and Russian officials, with Iranian Vice-President and head of the Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, in Moscow last week, are likely to be overshadowed by the international outcry over Russia's Chechen campaign. But Russia's close relationship with Iran has in the past provoked calls for an end to American aid to Russia. But Russia has so far resisted Western pressure over Iran. The nuclear plant deal alone is worth $800 million, according to Russia Today.
Iran can benefit immensely from cooperation with Russia. While Iran has been successful in opening up relations with several neighboring countries and some European countries, Iran remains isolated by continued U.S. sanctions. Iran's need to expand relations with other countries is evidenced by the recent easing of tensions with Afghanistan and Iraq. But relations with Russia, a resource of military and other technologies, are perhaps seen as necessary means of circumventing U.S. sanctions. If Iran is indeed developing nuclear weapons through cooperation with Russia, an allegation both countries deny, Iran's position as a regional power would become further established. Iran would be the only country in the Middle East other than Israel to possess nuclear weapons, and Middle East politics would no doubt change much as a result of the new sway in balance.
Despite benefits this sanction-beleaguered nation can derive from its relationship with Russia, Iran's Islamic ideology is strikingly mocked by Russia's current behavior towards Muslims in Chechnya. Russia's 10-week campaign in Chechnya, ostensibly to root out "terrorists" from the breakaway republic, is widely perceived as a bid for re-conquest. International outcry has rained down on Russia amid reports of high civilian casualties and the growing refugee crisis. In a November 17 statement issued through the Islamic Supreme Council of America (ISCA), Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov warned that Chechens who have not already fled the country are "at severe risk of death from hunger, bombardment and cold." He said Russia's current campaign was much worse than the Russian atrocities carried out during the 1994-1996 war in which 80,000 people died. "There is an active campaign of carpet bombing," said Maskhadov. While many Western nations, including the United States, have attempted to pressure Russia into a negotiated settlement and have publicly condemned the Chechen invasion, Iran seems to have shied from any sort of condemnation of Russia, let alone call a halt to its economic cooperation with Russia.
Iran's apparent refusal to stand up to Russia on the Chechen situation on the basis of a common Muslim identity with Chechnya is all the more uncharacteristic given Iran's past preoccupation with solidarity among Muslim countries. Iran currently holds the presidency of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). The Iranian government has consistently emphasized its Islamic identity, inherited from the 1979 revolution, rather than any cultural specificity. This past May, President Muhammad Khatami toured a variety of Middle East Muslim countries calling for Muslim unity in the face of foreign aggression. Khatami said Iran's stances on issues such as the Middle East peace process were based on the conviction that these issues affected Muslims everywhere, according to an iviews.com report from May 20 drawing on reports from Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
The past statements from Iranian leaders with regards to Muslim solidarity in the face of foreign domination seem to have been conveniently discarded with respect to Russia's continued aggression in Chechnya. While it is true that Iran perhaps stands to benefit much from close cooperation with Russia, especially given the ongoing U.S. sanctions, Iran had often been the first to fault those Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that, in its view, sold out Islamic principals for immediate material benefit. It remains to be seen whether Iran will hold itself to the same standards it has used for its neighbors.