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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the disputed winner of Iran’s presidential elections last week, flew to Russia today on his first foreign trip since the vote and subsequent protests that broke out in its wake.
Russia welcomed him with open arms, with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov saying: "We welcome that the elections in Iran took place, welcome the newly elected Iranian president on Russian soil and consider it symbolic that his first visit after the vote is to Russia." The disputed vote, he said, was “an internal thing for the Iranian people."
Ahmadinejad flew to the Russian city of Yekaterinburg to attend the second day of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a group that includes Russia, China and four Central Asian nations. Iran has observer status.
Ahmadinejad didn’t bring up the contested vote or the protests being waged by opposition leader Mousavi. According to Russian radio, he used his speech to praise Russia. According to Associated Press, he used it to bash the U.S. “America is enveloped in economic and political crises, and there is no hope for their resolution,” he said.
Russia has a complicated relationship with Iran.
Neither President Dmitry Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has commented on the recent events in Iran, eager as always to avoid any talk of disputed elections or revolutions in ally states, lest the subjects influence impressionable listeners at home.
And Iran is an ally state, though that doesn’t come without its caveats. Russia is helping build Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor, which is expected to be activated by the end of the year. The contract has been estimated at $1 billion. Russia is also keen to ensure involvement in the Iranian energy industry. Russia is the world’s largest gas producer; Iran has reserves to make it the world’s second or third largest (depending on how much gas you think lies in Turkmenistan, which has not provided reliable figures). The last thing Russia wants is unfettered competition on the international gas market, which could drive down prices and lessen the influence that Russia gets from being Europe’s largest gas supplier. So at the same time, Russia is interested in keeping Iran in its place.
The U.S. is hoping for Russian cooperation in ensuring Iran’s nuclear program isn’t weaponized. Recent reports have suggested that Bushehr’s activitization could be delayed, with the Russians citing financing problems as the reason.
According to one Russian report today, Medvedev broke plans to meet Ahmadinejad at the summit. They saw this as a further sign that Moscow’s view of Ahmadinejad — and possibly the regime in general — could be changing.
See here for an overview of local reaction around the world.