Russia’s position on Iran, as presented by President Vladimir Putin to President George W. Bush in Bratislava and by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the EU “troika” in Luxembourg, is crystal clear and rock solid. Their nuclear cooperation is strictly commercial and has absolutely no military significance. The agreement signed on February 27 by the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) Alexander Rumyantsev and Iranian Vice President and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization Gholamreza Aghazadeh is indeed watertight by IAEA standards (Rosbalt, February 27). Russia will deliver 100 tons of enriched uranium for the nearly completed Bushehr nuclear plant in early 2006. The reactor will be started by the end of 2006, and Iran will return the used fuel to Russia in some 10 years (Newsru.com, February 27). Could there possibly be a problem?
The answer that most Western politicians have been trying to spell out is “Yes,” but Moscow’s stubborn refusal to hear it means that in fact there are two problems.
The first one is Iran: there are few doubts that this major regional power aspires to develop a nuclear capability. Saddam Hussein’s failed bluff and crushing defeat in Iraq mean that the Iranian regime has every reason to see the nuclear option not as a matter of choice but as a matter of survival. Bushehr, even if built “by the book” and entirely transparent, constitutes an important part of this option, providing Iran with valuable expertise and with an entry ticket to the nuclear “club.” Tehran clearly wants to make the maximum possible gain from this project, so Rumyantsev, up to the very moment he put his signature on the agreement, had encountered pressure to deliver the nuclear fuel as soon as possible and to relax the demand for its complete repatriation (Izvestiya, February 28). His point that it makes no economic sense for Iran to develop the full cycle of uranium enrichment even if Bushehr’s capacity would be doubled or tripled is probably right on target but only makes it harder to deny that it makes perfect security sense (Lenta.ru, February 28). This denial, nevertheless, is performed with remarkable persistency. Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, starting yet another European tour, acknowledged that Iran would remain one of the hardest problems in the mid-term and asserted that Russia would “do everything possible to prevent the appearance of nuclear weapons in Iran” (Newsru, March 1).
To all intents and purposes, that pretence of being a part of the solution actually makes Russia the second part of the problem. Its disagreements with the United States on Iran are well documented and the stern comment from the White House on the need to know more details about the Russia-Iran deal confirmed that Bratislava resolved nothing (Newsru, February 28). Cultivating these disagreements, Moscow at least tried to make an impression that its position is very close to the European efforts. Putin corrected this impression with his surprise announcement about the forthcoming visit to Iran, perhaps as soon as April (Polit.ru, February 18).
The EU has refrained from voicing any criticism against the Russian unilateralism, acknowledging that the agreement is technically legitimate (The Guardian, February 28). However, after the Luxembourg meeting, Lavrov mentioned the need to “improve coordination” with the European partners. Translated from the diplomatic language, it simply means that coordination does not work (Interfax, March 1).
Indeed, Britain, France, and Germany are trying to put together a package of incentives in order to dissuade Iran from advancing its project on uranium enrichment — but Moscow’s readiness to strike its own deal despite the deadlock in European negotiations is a strong counter-incentive (Economist, February 26). Russia also undermines Western attempts to put pressure on Tehran with the “Plan B” that starts from discussions in the UN Security Council; even a hint of veto is enough to kill this threat. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi promptly stated that promises of economic benefits would not bring any change in the nuclear program (Lenta.ru, March 1). That is simply not Russia’s problem, and neither is Iran’s new refusal to allow the IAEA inspectors to visit the military facilities at Parchin (Lenta.ru, March 2).
Rescuing Iran from international isolation, Russia cannot expect to benefit that greatly. The price tag on Bushehr is about $900 million, which may appear to be good money, but in actuality is barely one-third of the money the Nunn-Lugar program spent over ten years on securing Russia’s own nuclear arsenal. Rumyantsev proudly asserted that this project employing some 2,000 specialists “has saved Russian nuclear complex” (Izvestiya, February 28). In reality, however, there is plenty of work on Russia’s own nuclear stations, since the Energy Strategy, approved in late 2003, prescribes a steady growth of nuclear energy production. As a way of comparison, it may be worth noting that last December several smart operatives in Putin’s inner circle found some $9 billion in a matter of a few days for purchasing Yuganskneftegaz in a rigged auction. The stakes in current big political games in Moscow are therefore approximately one hundred times higher than the annual value of the nuclear contract with Iran.
It would have been very uncharacteristic for Russian foreign policy to pursue such small profit margins at the expense of serious political trouble. It aims at more than just tactical gain, and Putin definitely perceives his forthcoming visit to Tehran in terms of global geopolitics rather than mundane economics (Moskovsky novosti, February 25). A nuclear Iran would probably make a difficult neighbor but, as the discussions at the international conference in Moscow on Iranian nuclear program last December confirmed, Russia does not see this risk as unacceptable (Russia in Global Affairs, January/February). Its only serious disagreement with Iran concerns the Caspian Sea, but since the disputed borders there are those of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, Moscow rather enjoys having this disagreement.
Ultimately, Iran armed with a few nuclear missiles would make Russia’s dwindling strategic forces all the more impressive and could give a boost to the nuclear-political power-play that some politicians in Moscow have been missing since the end of the Cold War. Just listen carefully to Ivanov’s boasts about new non-interceptable missiles.