The protracted, slow-moving intrigue around Iran’s nuclear program accelerated sharply last week as the international seals on the research facility at Natanz were removed. The frustrated European “troika” — France, Germany, and the UK — interrupted their fruitless negotiations with Iran, and the United States strongly condemned Iranian actions while questioning the very rationale behind its “peaceful” intentions to possess a full nuclear cycle.
An important shift was also registered in Moscow: For the first time, a reasonably clear signal was sent that Russia would not object to the transfer of the Iranian “dossier” from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to the UN Security Council (Vremya novostei, January 13). Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio (text available at www.echo.msk.ru), very carefully chose the words he used to explain this shift without joining the ranks of what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls “bullying states.” Lavrov insisted that relations with Iran were not taking a turn to the worse and that Russia wanted to help it to avoid international isolation.
Moscow definitely has its own reasons for being upset with Iranian behavior besides unsealing the Natanz lab or creating outrage in the West with anti-Israeli rhetoric. Last fall Russia presented a plan for defusing this crisis through a joint venture with Iran that would build a uranium enrichment plant on Russian territory. The idea appeared acceptable for the European “troika” and even the unenthusiastic United States was ready to give it a try. The Kremlin saw a rare opportunity to make a difference in resolving a crucial international issue. This initiative could have been a crowning moment in Russia’s chairmanship of the G-8, which is a matter of colossal personal importance for President Vladimir Putin. All that was needed for this sweet triumph was an expression of interest from Tehran but, after several lukewarm signals, it bluntly turned down the plan in the first week of this year (Gazeta.ru, January 14). Moscow, apparently, cannot quite believe in the collapse of its cherished initiative, and Lavrov recited again the economic benefits of importing the ready-made fuel, while Sergei Kirienko, the newly appointed head of the Federal Nuclear Power Agency, Rosatom, confirmed his readiness to visit Tehran and explain every detail of the proposal (Izvestiya, January 13).
While selling this initiative, Moscow increased its efforts to sell arms to Iran; in December 2005 an agreement on exporting Tor-M1 surface-to-air missiles was finalized, and deliveries scheduled for the first half of this year. Russian experts argued that these missiles, due to their short range, could not provide reliable coverage of nuclear facilities but would be perfect for protecting the more complex C-300 missile system (Gazeta.ru, January 13). According to usually well-informed Kommersant (January 13), a Russian delegation interrupted the negotiations on exporting C-300 missiles and returned to Moscow last week in order to show Russia’s disappointment at Iran’s lack of interest. In a surprisingly fast response to this article, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov asserted that there had never been any plans for selling C-300 to Iran and no negotiations had been held (Newsru.com, January 13).
Kommersant (January 14), nevertheless, stands by its report and reminded its readers that in 2005 it had revealed plans to export surface-to-surface Iskander missiles to Syria. The defense minister also firmly denied that account, only to have it later confirmed by Putin, who characterized it as a “military initiative” that had been stopped by his intervention. What makes the latest “leak” plausible is the fact that a Russian delegation led by Valentin Sobolev, deputy secretary of the Security Council and former deputy chief of the FSB with the rank of colonel-general, had a series of “closed-door” meetings in Tehran for two days seeking to achieve a last-minute breakthrough.
Moscow appears ready to grant its consent to tackling the Iranian issue in the UN Security Council at a January 16 meeting in London, and it hardly expects that a cautious China would block this move. In some ways, debates around the top security table in the world, where it has a veto, suit Russia better than the deliberations in the IAEA, where expert opinions often carry more weight than political intrigues. However, there is little doubt that the forthcoming UN debates would be centered on the issue of sanctions, which is certainly a tricky one since Iran could always respond by reducing (even slightly) its oil exports — and that could push already astounding oil prices to a stratospheric level. The two most logical avenues for sanctions could be arms exports and nuclear cooperation, and they both affect Russia’s interests quite directly. As of now, Moscow could still insist that its work on constructing the nuclear power station in Bushehr (which should be finished this October) and readiness to supply nuclear fuel for it under the IAEA safeguards is an entirely different matter than the controversy over uranium enrichment. In the UN however, it could be proven beyond reasonable doubt that Bushehr is as much a part of the Iranian nuclear program as is Natanz — and no veto could disprove this fact.
Russia intends to continue its maneuvering, presenting itself simultaneously as a responsible member of the G-8 and as Iran’s “best friend,” and may even score some tactical points — but it stands to loose a crucially important commodity in international relations: trust. Lavrov heavily emphasized this point in his interview, arguing that Iran could not exercise its right to develop a nuclear program until it regains the trust of the international community, which had been lost when parts of that program were concealed.
Lavrov definitely has a point, but there is also a question lurking beneath the surface: How could Iran trust Russia to supply it with nuclear fuel when Moscow shows such short-sighted arrogance when it comes to supplying Ukraine with natural gas? A larger question is about the trust in the non-proliferation regime that was built upon the commitment of five nuclear powers to eliminate their arsenals. Defense Minister Ivanov solemnly confirmed last week that Russia considers nuclear weapons to be the central element of its security system (Vedomosti, January 12). How can a non-nuclear country trust that such a nuclear-dependent and self-centered neighbor would guarantee its security?