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Nuclear Niceties: Putin Extends Olive Branch To Iran's New Leader

The Russian leader is expected to try to jumpstart negotiations over Iran's nuclear program with the new president, considered more moderate than his predecessor.

Will "Rohani the Reformer" be more flexible than his predecessor?
Will "Rohani the Reformer" be more flexible than his predecessor?
Elena Chernenko, Ivan Safronov and Vladimir Dsaguto

MOSCOW - Russian Vladimir Putin has scheduled an official trip to Tehran for mid-August, which is expected to make him the first foreign leader to visit Iran after the Aug. 3 inauguration of the new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani.

Putin has two key objectives for the visit: to reverse a dead-end in discussions about Iran’s nuclear program, and to talk about construction of new Russian power plants in Iran and the delivery of Russian-made anti-missile systems.

Experts say the meeting is ripe with opportunities -- but also risks.

The last time Putin visited Teheran was in October 2007, for a summit on the Caspian Sea. Before that, no Russian or Soviet leader had been to Iran since 1943. The official visit in 2007 re-activated Russian-Iranian relations, although those relations promptly went south again during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev. Most notably, there was a major misunderstanding between Moscow and Tehran over a contract in 2007 for Iran to buy a Russian missile system.

According to a source that is familiar with preparations for the visit, the nuclear issue will be very much on the table. In June, Putin said that he thought Iran was following all of the rules in its nuclear programs, and that there was no proof that its nuclear program was for military use. But he also said there were several unanswered questions.

Moscow seems to think that “Rohani the Reformer” will be more flexible in discussions about the nuclear program than his predecessor. “We have to seize the moment — when a new president comes into power — to push the negotiations forward,” explained a Russian diplomat. “This visit will allow us to get a feel for the new leadership in Iran, and whether or not it is ready to move towards greater accountability in terms of the demands of the international community.”

Supreme leader

At the same time, according to this source, the situation is made more complicated by the fact that Rohani’s power is really quite limited: Most decisions are still made by the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and any chance for compromise will require a guarantee from the West that they will end sanctions.

“Everything depends on the negotiations with Khamenei,” explained Vladimir Orlov, president of the Russian Center for Political Studies. “This visit has promise for Putin, but it is also risky: A lot of people have failed in trying to solve the Iranian nuclear problem.”

But Orlov also added, “It is very important for Putin that Russian foreign policy be independent, and Iran is still a center of power, one of the key players in the Middle East and the world.”

Putin is also planning to discuss the two countries’ bilateral issues, particularly in relation to energy and military industries. During a visit to Moscow at the beginning of July, outgoing Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke about the construction of a new Russian power plant in Iran as if it were a done deal. But the sources we spoke to in the Russian government were categorical: Moscow has not yet made any decisions about whether to go forward with the project.

Sources from Rosatom, the state corporation that would be building the plant, say that the relationship with Iran is limited to the modules that have already been built, and that there are no ongoing negotiations about other projects.

Sources also said that the state corporation was also not particularly interested in doing business in Iran, and was more focused on winning contracts in the Czech Republic and Finland. In addition, the first power plant built by Rosatom in Iran turned out to be a money-loser.

Another source said there is concern in Moscow that Iran might not have the money for the new power plants, but also said that Russia might “meet Iran halfway on the power plant issue, for political reasons, but it won’t do so happily.”

The two countries are still trying to settle the fallout from the 2007 dispute over the weapons deal gone bust. Moscow has offered to give Iran a different anti-missile system instead of the one that Tehran was expecting to acquire in 2007, in the hopes that Iran will drop its $4 billion lawsuit for breach of contract.

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