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Russian Signals on Nuke Aid to Iran Don’t Mean Cooperation to End Soon

June 12, 2003
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Russia’s leadership has indicated in the past two weeks that it is ready to rethink its long-standing nuclear cooperation with Iran — but experts here agree that Moscow has not yet decided to ban such cooperation.

The United States and Israel long have criticized Russia for helping develop Iran’s nuclear energy program, including helping build the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

“Russia doesn’t know yet where it goes from here,” said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian defense analyst.

“Russian policy on Iran is shifting, yet there is disarray among Russian leadership about what to do next, what do we ask from Iran,” Felgenhauer said. “President Putin is saying one thing and the foreign minister” Igor Ivanov “is saying another.”

At a joint news conference with President Bush earlier this month in Evian, France, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow’s position on Iran is much closer to Washington’s than previously believed, and that Russia does not “need to be convinced of the fact that there should be no proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

He added that Russia will work with the United States to prevent such proliferation “everywhere, including Iran.”

Also in Evian, Putin told his fellow G-8 leaders that Russia will halt “all nuclear exports” to Iran until that country signs on to a stricter protocol on nuclear inspections.

This week, Putin reinforced his statements at a meeting with visiting U.S. Jewish leaders.

Putin indicated that Russia has suspended delivery of nuclear materials to Iran until there is more transparency in Tehran’s use of sensitive technologies.

He added that Moscow would seek additional guarantees from Tehran that Russian technologies are not being used to produce weapons of mass destruction. Putin acknowledged that materials sold to Iran carry a potentially great threat of being used as weaponry because of Iran’s support of terrorism.

But earlier this month, a senior Russian Cabinet member dismissed U.S. concerns that Russian nuclear technology could be used to create atomic weapons in Iran.

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said Tehran is a member of the International Atomic Energy Agency and abides by its regulations. He said the technology that will be employed at Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant couldn’t “even hypothetically” be used for the production of weapons-grade plutonium or “other military purposes.”

“This is purely a commercial project,” Ivanov said.

Similarly, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia would not necessarily link its completion of the Bushehr plant to Tehran’s signature on additional agreements that would make its nuclear facilities available for unannounced inspections.

Georgii Mirskii, an expert on Middle East affairs with Moscow’s Institute of Global Economics and International Relations, agreed that the Kremlin is ambivalent about U.S. demands to end nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Moscow is reluctant to give in to American pressure for reasons of economics and prestige, but it agrees that concerns that Iran might be seeking to build nuclear weapons increasingly are being substantiated, Mirskii said in a recent interview.

If Tehran succeeds in acquiring such weapons, they would pose a more direct threat to Russia than to the United States, he said.

“A nuclear Iran that has territorial claims in the Caspian basin is a real concern for Russia, and is not something that Russia would want to see near its borders,” Felgenhauer said.

Russia consistently has stated that its cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere doesn’t go beyond the energy sector — the light-water reactor that Russia is building in Bushehr is not of great proliferation concern — but Iran reportedly is just three to four years away from completing a working nuclear bomb.

It remains an open question to what extent Russian cooperation has helped Tehran reach that goal.

The existence of a uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, Iran, was publicly revealed in August 2002 by an Iranian opposition group. International observers later confirmed that the technology can be used to enrich uranium beyond the needs of power reactors, for use in weapons.

“Moscow clearly does share concerns about the real intentions of Iran,” Felgenhauer said. “It was a nasty surprise for Russians that they had built a uranium purification plant. That was apparently done in secret from Russia.”

Evgeny Satanovsky, president of the Russian Jewish Congress and a leading expert on the Middle East, said Russia is not helping Iran develop weapons of mass destruction.

“Iran is one of the most stable Russian neighbors in the region, but Russia understands that Iran is not its strategic partner,” Satanovsky said. “Russia is ready to heed U.S. concerns, but simple pressure won’t work here.”

He continued, “Keeping Russian contracts in the Iranian nuclear energy sector is an important way to have some control over Iran’s nuclear program. It should be understood now when we see that Tehran will soon have its bomb with or without Russia.”

In fact, during this week’s meeting with American Jewish leaders, Putin said Russia is “against using the pretext of a nuclear weapons program as an instrument of unfair competition against us.”

Russia is expected to receive about $500 million in revenues from the completed Bushehr plant. The cost of the entire project is estimated at $10 billion.

Some analysts say it may not be up to Putin to change or terminate the Bushehr contract. Russian business leaders have their own interests at stake, and the future of the sensitive projects in Iran largely lies with them, experts say.

Kakha Bendukidze, a powerful Russian business tycoon, has an industrial conglomerate, United Machine Building Plants, that is the largest shareholder of Iran’s nuclear energy project and is responsible for building the reactor turbines.

Felgenhauer said it would not be much of an exaggeration to say that “instead of going to Bush or Putin, those who are concerned about the program rather should go to Bendukidze.”

Analysts say it will be nearly impossible to persuade Russia to cancel the Bushehr contract using economic inducements.

“The economic compensation the U.S. is offering to Russia will not work here,” Felgenhauer said. “You have to find a way to meet the interests of those who actually own the project, not Russia as a nation. The compensations and business incentives should be precision guided, otherwise they’re not effective.”

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