Russia and Iran share a common hostility toward the United States. There have, however, been important differences between Moscow and Tehran - especially over nuclear issues. Relations seemed to improve, though, with Vladimir Putin's October 2007 visit to Tehran and Russia's shipment to Iran of the enriched uranium needed to start up the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Important differences, however, remain between the two countries that serve to limit the extent to which they can cooperate.
In October 2007, Russian President Vladimir Putin paid a visit to Tehran and met both with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and with Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah 'Ali Khamene'i. Their meetings were soon followed by the commencement in mid-December 2007 of the previously agreed to but delayed Russian delivery to Iran of 82 tons of enriched uranium needed to start operating the Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr. The delivery of this material was completed at the end of January 2008. There were also reports of increased Russian weapons sales to Iran, and of Moscow and Tehran working together to form a natural gas cartel similar to the OPEC oil cartel.
In one sense, this increased cooperation between Putin and Ahmadinejad is not surprising. Both, after all, see the United States as their principal antagonist. This being the case, it seems only natural that Moscow and Tehran would work together against it. In another sense, however, the increased Russian-Iranian cooperation since the October 2007 Putin visit to Tehran is surprising. Moscow and Tehran have typically had prickly relations both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Despite their common antipathy toward the US, disagreement over several issues has continued to plague Russian- Iranian relations after Ahmadinejad's election as President of Iran in 2005.
Did the Putin visit to Tehran in October 2007 usher in a new era of Russian-Iranian relations in which their previous differences would either be resolved or subordinated to the pursuit of their common interest in opposing American foreign policy? Or will Russian-Iranian differences continue to limit the extent to which Moscow and Tehran cooperate with each other? I will address these questions by first examining the differences between Putin and Ahmadinejad prior to Putin's October 2007 visit to Tehran and then examining the ways in which Russian-Iranian ties have - and have not - improved since that time.
The main Russian-Iranian disagreements that have occurred under Putin and Ahmadinejad have been over United Nations Security Council (UNSC) action over the Iranian nuclear issue, completion of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, how Iran will obtain commercial grade enriched uranium, differences concerning a possible alliance between the two countries, what use will be made of Russia's Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan, and over natural gas, oil, and the delimitation of the Caspian Sea.
Ever since the revelation that Iran was conducting secret nuclear activities that it had not previously reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Russia (along with China) has acted to shield Tehran from harsher measures that the US has proposed be taken against it by the UNSC. Up until early 2006, Moscow did this through working to keep the Iranian "nuclear dossier" under the purview of the IAEA (which assesses whether signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty are in compliance with it, but which cannot impose sanctions on them for not being so) and through not allowing the IAEA Board of Governors to refer it to the Security Council (which can impose sanctions). On February 4, 2006, though, Russia - along with most other IAEA Board Governors of members - did vote to refer the Iranian nuclear dossier to the UNSC.
Following this, the five UNSC permanent members plus Germany ("the Six") offered a package of inducements for Iran to suspend all nuclear enrichment and reprocessing activities as well as cooperate with the IAEA. …