Moscow urged restraint from the international community yesterday after a series of missile drills by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and said "impartial analysis" was needed of the new uranium enrichment plant before any steps are taken against the Islamic republic.
France called on Tehran to immediately stop "deeply destabilising activities". Britain condemned the missile tests as "reprehensible", but said they should not distract attention from nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers on Thursday. Moscow rushed to calm tempers. "Common sense, not emotion, should prevail now," a Russian foreign ministry source told the Interfax news agency. The statement follows comments last week by the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, that Moscow might support new sanctions against Iran that have set nerves jangling in Tehran before talks on the nuclear dispute.
Iranian representatives will meet envoys of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany, the so-called P-5 plus-one, in Geneva on Thursday. Mr Medvedev delivered a particularly sharp rebuke after Friday's revelations that Iran was constructing a previously undeclared new uranium enrichment plant: "That was secret construction and that's the gravest thing in this situation." The prime minister, Vladimir Putin, Russia's most powerful leader, has not yet echoed Mr Medvedev's tougher remarks on Iran. Mr Putin is generally more hawkish towards the United States and has publicly denounced imposing new sanctions on Iran in the past.
Nevertheless, Iran will be wary of Russian intentions. Given Russia's good ties with Iran in recent years, it is sometimes forgotten how much suspicion - rooted in events both historical and modern - still bedevils their relationship. Moscow is a key supplier of military hardware to Tehran, a good trade partner in difficult times and has so far helped dilute UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.
But their relationship is propelled less by common goals than mutual accommodation on certain issues. Strident editorials alleging Russian duplicity surface periodically in the Iranian press. "The Russians cheat their allies if it is necessary and history shows that they have swindled us heavily," said a recent editorial in Mardom-Salari, Iran's reformist newspaper. Washington was pleased last week with signs that Moscow might get tougher on Iran. The United States hopes that if Moscow backs new sanctions, Beijing, which trades heavily with Tehran and is most opposed to punitive new measures, might fall into line to avoid isolation at the UN Security Council.
Yet many experts are sceptical that Moscow will agree to any genuinely potent new sanctions against Tehran if it refuses to give ground on its nuclear programme in coming months. Russia does not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, but does not see the republic as a strategic threat as the West does. Mark Katz, a professor of government and politics at George Mason University in Virginia, said: "Moscow is not likely to support a [UN Security Council] resolution that seriously impacts Iran." He said he believes Moscow's Iran policy is driven more by commercial than strategic interests and that Russia sees a benefit in the current hostility between Tehran and Washington that it would lose under any eventual reconciliation between the two.
"What the Russians like is that Iran is a captive market," Prof Katz, who has written extensively on Soviet and Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East, said in an interview. "Once Iran has good relations with the US it's going to prefer to purchase western arms if it can; it's going to prefer western assistance on its nuclear programme and, of course, will prefer western investment to Russian investment in the petroleum sector."
Moreover, rapprochement between Washington and Tehran could see Iran becoming an alternative in supplying Europe with gas, which "would be an enormous blow to Russian interests". Russia's apparent softening on new sanctions on Iran followed this month's decision by Barack Obama, the US president, to scrap Bush-era plans for a missile shield in eastern Europe, defusing a bitter security row with the Kremlin. Mr Medvedev hailed the decision as "courageous".
Iran is concerned that Moscow will use it as a bargaining chip with the West to further its own interests. Russia has "sufficiently effective levers" to influence Iran's behaviour, said Rajab Safarov, director of the Centre for Contemporary Iranian Studies in Moscow. Russia, for instance, has still not fulfilled a 2005 contract to supply Tehran with its sophisticated S-300 air defence systems, which could seriously complicate any plans for an Israeli or US air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. This has been a cause of resentment in Tehran, along with Moscow's apparent foot-dragging in completing Iran's first civilian nuclear power station in Bushehr.
Iranian mistrust of the United States goes back 50 years, but stretches back nearly two centuries against Russia, which battled Iran in the 19th century over control of Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the last century, the Soviet Union and Britain took control of Iran to prevent it from co-operating with Germany during the Second World War, ignoring Tehran's protestations of neutrality. After the war, Russia attempted to promote separatism in Iran's north-west.
"If Iranians think about who oppressed them over the centuries, Russia is on the same level as Britain," said a European diplomat in Tehran, where the regime has attempted to scapegoat "evil" Britain for Iran's post-election turmoil. The Soviet Union was pleased to see Iran's US-backed shah toppled by the 1979 Islamic Revolution, but ties soured when Moscow began arming Iraq in its war with Iran. The Islamic republic in turn provided assistance to the Afghan resistance after the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. Iran viewed Soviet communism to be as sham as western ideologies.
As the radical young leader of a student faction 30 years ago, Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, initially opposed the seizure of the US Embassy. He instead proposed taking over the Soviet embassy. Relations between Tehran and Moscow thawed after the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russia emerged as a key supplier of civilian and military technology for Iran. Iran, meanwhile, proved a useful ally in issues of regional concern to Moscow. There was, for instance, little criticism from Tehran of Russia's military action against the mainly Muslim breakaway republic of Chechnya.
Yet Iran remains cagey about Moscow. Russia in recent years has improved ties with Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tehran's two key regional rivals. Also unwelcome to Iran are recent reports that Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states are dangling the prospect of arms deals and oil contracts to cajole Moscow into supporting tougher sanctions against Tehran. Another editorial in Mardom-Salari, an Iranian reformist newspaper, warned recently: "In the not too distant future, we should prepare ourselves for the Russians to desert Iran in atomic negotiations."