History, Profit Drive Russia, Iran Ties

Russia has explained its reluctance to impose new sanctions on Iran by stressing the historic ties between the two countries. Russia and Iran, say officials in Moscow, are economic and cultural partners, as well as neighbors on the Caspian Sea.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

Each time the U.S. tries to confront Iran, Russia is reluctant to go along. Moscow isn't convinced that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and is weary of imposing new sanctions. One reason is that Russia and Iran have close ties as trade partners and neighbors on the Caspian Sea. NPR's David Greene wanted to explore the relationship.

DAVID GREENE: Alexander Palishok(ph) has been studying the Russia-Iran relationship his entire career. He's an historian and economist at the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. And he said, don't think for a second, that Russia trusts Iran.

Mr. ALEXANDER PALISHOK (Historian, Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow): I don't think that we trust anybody very much.

GREENE: Russia and Iran aren't natural friends, he said. In fact, the Islamic government that rose to power in Iran in 1979 made Soviet leaders uncomfortable. But over time, in public at least, Russian leaders have come to view Iran's interest in nuclear power as peaceful and potentially profitable.

Mr. PALISHOK: I think Americans and others, they have a very good opportunity to take part in this, in development of Iranian nuclear power stations. Why not?

GREENE: Why not was Russia's answer. A Russian company is building a civilian nuclear power plant in Iran. And Russian officials want it running by this summer. If Iran is a threat, Palishok said, Russia's approach has been to engage, not isolate.

Mr. PALISHOK: The policy of Russia it was and it remains to have good relations with their neighbors. It's very important.

GREENE: To make his point, Palishok had a map. He showed me how northern Iran borders the Caspian Sea, and across a few hundred miles of water is the south of Russia.

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It's a predominantly Muslim region with mosques in every city and village. Russia and Iran are neighbors. And when Russian leaders speak of a cultural connection, this is where it's felt.

Ms. ANNA GOSANAVA(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: I met 74-year-old Anna Gosanava in a village in Dagestan, which is part of this Caspian region. Her father was Iranian. She's seen the news about Iran on TV, and she's heartened every time a Russian leader suggests the U.S. is exaggerating Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Ms. GOSANAVA: (Through translator) It's just a provocation. America always takes little bites in order to start a war. America wants to start a war and nothing else. Who made up this nuclear bomb? May his hands wither and fall off.

GREENE: From her village, it's a short drive to the Caspian shore, where I chatted with Ali Hedriev(ph). He teaches Persian language at Dagestan State University.

Professor ALI HEDRIEV (Dagestan State University): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Just listen to the language here, he said. Countless Persian words are spoken everyday in the many different languages of Dagestan. And he pointed to something else - the ships out in the distance, chugging along a route that was a vital supply line for the Soviets and the allies during World War II.

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Today, many of these cargo ships are doing runs between Iran and a bustling Russian port just north of Dagestan.

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It's the city of Astrakhan, where the Caspian meets Russia's Volga River. This is the heart of the Russian-Iranian trade.

Mr. RISAR AL-BIGHAI ASLI(ph) (Businessman): Welcome to Astrakhan.

GREENE: Risar al-Bighai Asli has a piece of the action. The Iranian businessman runs an import-export company, shipping Russian timber to Iran and Iranian rugs to Russia. He's part of a growing community. Iran opened a consulate in Astrakhan in 2002 and the number of Iranian companies has grown since.

Mr. ASLI: Mr. David, Russian people very kind people, I must say to you. You can have a good (unintelligible) with one bottle beer and you're starting have good (unintelligible) and something else.

GREENE: This is where my trip ended, in Astrakhan, watching Risar sip tea with his Russian business partner, Vladimir Ypiskin(ph). Both men laughed about the debate over whether to slap new sanctions on Iran.

Mr. VLADIMIR YPISKIN (Businessman): (Foreign language spoken)

GREENE: Politics come and go - the Russian businessman said - friends remain steady.

David Greene, NPR News, Moscow.

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