Vlad: Found Iran's leaders
November 9, 2007 -- 'EDUCATIONAL": That's how President Vladimir Putin's entourage described the Russian's recent whirlwind trip to Tehran.
Islamic Republic President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hyped the 36-hour visit as a "historic event." Some Western commentators even suggested that Putin and Ahmadinejad planned to create an axis to counter Western influence in the Middle East.
In fact, the visit seems to have persuaded Putin and his closest advisers that the Tehran leadership is culturally and temperamentally incapable of playing the classical Cold War-style power games that the Russians are interested in.
"This was the first time that Putin was talking to senior Islamic Republic leaders in a substantive and focused way," says a senior Russian official familiar with what happened. "The president found his Iranian interlocutor weird, to say the least. The Iranians mouthed a lot of eschatological nonsense and came close to urging Putin to convert to Islam. It was clear they lived in a world of their own."
Russian sources say that both Ahmadinejad and "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei gave the impression that they settle matters "in the metaphysical space" and with "the help of the Hidden Imam."
"The Iranians think they have already won," reports one Russian source who witnessed the visit. "So intoxicated they appeared with hubris that they did not even ask Putin to help them ward off further United Nations sanctions."
Ahmadinejad gave the impression he sought neither advice nor support from the Russians. All he wanted was to project the Islamic Republic as the regional superpower and invite Putin to acknowledge its new status. "It was as if Russia needed Iran, not the other way round," says the Russian source. "Putin was taken aback. He had not expected what he heard."
Putin had brought with him a compromise formula to defuse the crisis over Iran's nuclear program: Moscow and Tehran would set up a joint enterprise to enrich uranium both on Iranian and Russian territory. In exchange, Moscow would transfer to Tehran more advanced scientific and technological data and build up to 20 nuclear-power stations in Iran over two decades. But he decided to abandon his game plan: "When it became clear that we were talking to the wall, there was no point in attempts at creative diplomacy," says the Russian source.
But why is Putin's entourage leaking the information about his trip to Tehran?
Conspiracy theorists might claim that the Russian leader, ordered the leaks (via French, German and British journalists) to soothe European nerves frayed by what many saw as a Russian bid to bolster the Islamic Republic. Yet several factors suggest that the Russian claims are more than a cynical ploy.
To start with, Putin appears to have discussed his proposed compromise only with Khamenei and not with Ahmadinejad. Even then, the official accounts on both sides clearly indicate that there was no discussion. Putin just spelled out some "broad ideas," and Khamenei responded by saying that he would "think about what you have said." Ahmadinejad went further by announcing that Putin hadn't raised "any new ideas."
Then there's the fact that, only days after his Tehran visit, Putin instructed the Russian delegation at a session of the Five Plus One group (the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) to agree to devise new sanctions against Iran.
Even more interesting are things that Putin did not do.
Ahmadinejad had announced that the Russian visitor would announce a clear date for the years-delayed completion of Iran's first, and so far only, nuclear plant, which is being built near Bushehr by a Russian company. But Putin refused to fix a new date, stating that inauguration would depend on "resolving other matters," code words for the dispute over Iran's uranium-enrichment program.
Putin also didn't give Iran the scientific code for the type of enriched uranium that the Bushehr plant would need as fuel. Iran says it's enriching uranium for a yet-to-be-completed plant without knowing exactly what type of fuel is required. The Russian refusal to provide the codes makes the Iranian claim sound more unconvincing.
And Putin refused to announce a long-promised scheme under which Russia would train hundreds of Iranian scientists and technicians, thus giving Iran access to all aspects of nuclear technology.
Another sign of Putin's disappointment: his last-minute decision not to issue an invitation to Ahmadinejad for a state visit to Moscow. The Iranians had worked hard to secure the invite and were visibly disappointed when it didn't materialize.
None of this means that Putin won't use the Islamic Republic in his power game against the Western democracies. But his trip may have helped him understand the limits of playing the Khomeinist card. A member of Putin's entourage sums up the Russian leader's visit to Tehran: "He came, he saw, he was dismayed!"
Iranian-born journalist Amir Taheri is based in Europe.