Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 2

Bushehr nuclear power plant

In the last days of 2007, Moscow made several purposeful steps that barely registered in the West, where the Christmas break was already well underway. The first step was the delivery of fuel elements to the nearly completed nuclear power station in Bushehr, which could start the reactor perhaps as early as mid-2008 (Rossiiskaya gazeta, December 18;, December 30). The second step was the announcement of a deal to sell Iran five batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles for $800 million (Kommersant, December 27). If followed through, these developments could signify not only a “softening” of Russia’s position on the long-unfolding Iran crisis, but a complete collapse of the international efforts aimed at dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.

Seeking to play this collapse in “slow motion,” Moscow has maintained a degree of uncertainty about its Iranian decisions. It has even advanced the argument that the delivery of fuel for the Bushehr reactor should be seen in Tehran as proof of the absence of any “objective need” in its own uranium enrichment program, since its ambitious plans for building many more nuclear power stations could be implemented under standard arrangements for returning the spent fuel to the exporting country. The argument may be sound, but Tehran has given no indication of buying it, while the uninterrupted spinning of the cascades of uranium enrichment centrifuges is conveniently ignored in Moscow (, December 24). This activity constitutes a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolutions 1696 and 1737, adopted, respectively, in July and December 2006, but Russia now asserts that the improved cooperation between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) makes new resolutions redundant (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 20).

The case with selling weapons to Iran is even more muddled. The news about the new contract with Russia was broken by Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar, who did not specify the time of its implementation or the quantity of the missiles to be delivered. The Russian Foreign Ministry then vaguely confirmed that cooperation with Iran in air defense matters would continue, unleashing a series of assertive commentary in the Russian media (, December 27; RIA-Novosti, December 28). However, the Federal Service on Military-Technical Cooperation issued a statement that denied any negotiations with Iran on selling the S-300 missiles (, December 28). The question may remain in limbo for a few weeks, which could help Moscow measure the scale of concern in Washington and anger in Jerusalem, but the actual delivery could happen very fast, since the “goods” are available from the factory inventory. The deployment of 40-60 mobile launchers of these reasonably efficient missiles in combination with the tactical Tor-M1 surface-to-air missiles delivered in 2006-2007 would significantly strengthen efforts to protect Iranian nuclear assets from a limited air strike.

What prompted Russia to take these pro-active but risky steps in the Iranian game was the new U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that established that Tehran had discontinued its nuclear weapons program. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clarified that Russian intelligence had no evidence that such a program had been active prior to 2003 and, meeting with his Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Motaki, emphasized the opportunity to resolve all remaining questions. President Vladimir Putin had a meeting with Saeed Jalili, secretary of National Security Council and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, which signified a breakthrough in sorting out the “misunderstandings” about the delivery of fuel for the Bushehr reactor (RIA-Novosti, December 5, 13). What is possible to discern in these diplomatic activities is not only an eagerness to jump on an opportunity, but also concern that the inevitable reduction of U.S. pressure on Iran might pave the way to a compromise, perhaps to be advanced by the next U.S. administration, and that could lead to all sorts of negative consequences for Russia, including a swift decline in oil prices from the current stratospheric heights of $100 a barrel.

An additional incentive for rapprochement with Iran is related to the desire to expand arms exports, which reached the record level of $7 billion in 2007, compared with $6.5 billion in 2006 (Kommersant, December 25). However, the expectations that the arms industry would demonstrate a new quality of growth were not exactly fulfilled, as most weapons systems in production are still based on the Soviet technologies of the pre-computer era. Several setbacks were registered in 2007, as the much-advertised contracts with Algeria were curtailed and the commitments to deliver the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov and other naval armaments to India were broken (, November 28). In fact, taking into consideration the 12% jump in inflation and the ruble’s strong appreciation against the U.S. dollar, it is easy to calculate that the real value of arms traded in 2007 showed a decline, rather than the proudly reported increase.

This hidden retreat is well camouflaged by the massive propaganda offensive trumpeting 2007 as a fantastically successful year, and Putin, in his televised New Year’s address, assured that “Russia has been gaining in strength and becoming stronger.” Self-reassuring as this perception is, it also contains a great deal of wishful thinking, since too many political tests of this strength – from the fight against the deployment of U.S. radars and interceptor-missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland to pressure on Georgia – have delivered negative results. Worried about the fragility of his pseudo-democratic but far from monolithic system of power, Putin increasingly sees the need to juxtapose Russia against the “unfriendly” and even “hostile” West that still remains the pivot of economic relations and political networking. Noting the rise of international tensions in his forecast for 2008, Lavrov insisted that Russia would not be dragged into any confrontation (RIA-Novosti, December 29). Adding fuel to the smoldering conflict around Iran hardly fits into this course of caution, but it is the blind drive to confront the West in order to secure the crumbling domestic stability that shapes up as the main threat to Russia’s security in the uncertain period of Putin-Medvedev duumvirate.