Yesterday, Interfax reported that “several groups of suicide terrorists” are planning an attack on the life of Vladimir Putin during his oft-postponed visit to Tehran, which begins tonight. The Russian news agency, the country’s largest, attributed the report to “various sources outside Russia.” Iran’s foreign ministry called the report “completely baseless.”
For once, the Iranians appear to be correct. Interfax often works closely with the Russian government to disseminate its views, and, if the assassination threat were real, it is unlikely we would ever have heard about it. Moreover, Putin is shrugging off the threat and continuing with his travel plans, a sure sign that the Interfax report is bogus. So we have to ask what the Kremlin seeks to gain by releasing the news about a Persian plot. Putin’s Iranian visit, the first by a Russian leader since Stalin’s 1943 trip, is important to the mullahs. “It’s a break in international isolation, a chance to show that Iran is an important country,” said Alexander Pikayev, a Russian analyst.
Putin is scheduled to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in what is bound to be a difficult session. Undoubtedly, the most contentious issue is Russia’s ongoing failure to supply uranium fuel for Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant, the nation’s first. The Russians were instrumental in building the facility, but they’ve shown reluctance to let it begin operations. “Tehran views Russia as an unreliable partner that uses Iran in its game with the West,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, the Russian editor of Global Affairs. Although some of the disagreements between Russia and Iran undoubtedly are manufactured for the West’s consumption, there is more than a hint of real tension in Tehran’s recent relations with Moscow. Perhaps the Interfax report is intended to put Ahmadinejad on the defensive by embarrassing Putin’s Persian hosts.
Putin, for instance, is just about out of maneuvering room in his delicate—and duplicitous—balancing game between Iran and the West. If, for example, in the next few weeks, the atomic ayatollahs do not come clean with the International Atomic Energy Agency about their nuclear program, Russia may be backed into supporting a third set of Security Council sanctions against Tehran next month. Any new measures are bound to be more coercive than the slap-on-the-wrist provisions imposed in the past, and new UN actions are bound to turn Tehran against Moscow. So whatever the unusual assassination rumor indicates, it shows that not all is well between Russia and Iran. And the disagreements between the two nations are just additional symptoms that the Iranian crisis is reaching a decisive moment.