MOSCOW: Russia’s economy chief said on Wednesday he would visit Iran in April amid reports the two sides are nearing an oil-for-goods agreement that has raised consternation in the United States.
Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev told reporters his trip would focus on a “wide range of trade and economic issues” but provided no other details. The “visit will probably take place, but not in March (as previously reported) but in late April,” Russian news agencies quoted Ulyukayev as saying.
Moscow’s Kommersant business daily said January 16 the two close trading partners were discussing a barter agreement under which Russia could import up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil per day.
Russian officials have neither confirmed nor denied the discussions. They stress that such deliveries would not break UN sanctions on the Islamic state.
The United States and EU nations, however, have imposed their own unilateral sanctions over Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme that also penalise countries and companies dealing in certain areas with Iran.
The White House last month expressed “serious concern” over the reported discussions because they could potentially boost Iran’s oil export volumes by more than 50 percent. Iran’s estimated daily crude shipments are believed to have shrunk from 2.5 million barrels per day in late 2011 to less than one million barrels per day at the end of last year under the impact of the US/EU sanctions.
Tehran’s Fars news agency quoted Moscow’s Iranian ambassador as saying on Saturday that the swap would see Russia build railroads in the Islamic republic in exchange for its oil.
Russia has imposed no unilateral sanctions on Iran and is helping its Soviet-era partner with arms shipments and nuclear energy production.
Moscow media have been speculating since the weekend that the deal would see Russia re-export the oil to China while also providing Iran with train cars and locomotives for its ageing rail network.
Russian Railways state corporation chief Vladimir Yakunin had earlier expressed interest in helping Iran develop a railroad to its northern neighbour Armenia.
The former Soviet nation’s only existing railway link with other countries currently runs through Georgia to the northwest. Some analysts believe that Washington would be less upset with Russia developing Iran’s 100-year rail network because this would reduce the possibility of Moscow providing Tehran with weapons or advanced equipment with a dual civilian-military use.
The United States is particularly concerned about Iran acquiring from Russian state and private corporations knowhow necessary to develop long-range missiles and expand its uranium enrichment programme. Other reported aspects of the proposed deal would see Russia’s state-run energy behemoth Gazprom get access to natural gas deposits controlled by Iran in the Caspian Sea. Moscow’s ambassador to Tehran has also said that Russia’s second-largest crude producer Lukoil — a private firm — was in talks with the Iranian oil ministry about resuming work in its energy sector as soon as the Western sanctions are removed. Relations between Russia and Iran have wavered throughout history but included a close alliance in the 1980s after the fall of the Shah.
Moscow has since developed Iran’s first nuclear power plant and lobbied unsuccessfully for Tehran’s inclusion in the international peace talks on Syria that resumed last month in Switzerland.
The Russian foreign ministry on Wednesday reported telephone talks between Sergei Lavrov and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif that it said focused both on the Syria crisis and bilateral ties.
“The two sides discussed joint steps on implementing agreements... in various areas of Russian-Iranian cooperation, including in the economic and trade spheres,” the Russian foreign ministry said.
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