Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 102

While Russia helped Iran build its nuclear reactor at Bushehr, Moscow now appears to be pushing Tehran to abandon dreams of further nuclearization (Interfax April 28, 29). Iran claims to have suspended some nuclear activities relating to uranium enrichment as part of a deal with the European Union, but it admits to converting 37 tons of raw uranium into gas before beginning talks with the EU (AFP, UPI, May 10). The EU-3 (Great Britain, France, and Germany) are to meet with Iranian representatives today (May 25) to encourage Tehran to continue its moratorium on uranium enrichment.

White House officials claim that Russia has sought to push Iran to give up its nuclear aspirations. Specifically, Russia has supported those negotiations and has demanded that the spent fuel from Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr be returned by Iran to Russia as part of future support for Iran’s nuclear program (U.S. Federal News, May 9). During his April trip to the Middle East, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated Moscow’s “categorical” opposition to Iranian military nuclearization and insisted that Iran stop trying to develop uranium enrichment and full-cycle nuclear technologies (Interfax, April 22). More recently Alexander Rumyantsev, director of Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency, stated that Iran should not develop its own uranium enrichment capability but rely on third parties to provide enriched uranium to Iran (Vremya novostei, May 12).

Yet, Rumyantsev also declared, “Even the U.S. cannot inflict the least damage on Russia’s cooperation with Iran” (IRNA, May 21). Russian commentators and Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Alexander Maryasov, note that Moscow fundamentally differs from Washington in that it supports Iran’s right to a peaceful nuclear program and advocates that Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency sign an additional protocol giving the IAEA the right to conduct inspections without prior notification while Iran maintains its moratorium on enrichment (RIA-Novosti, April 28; Russian Channel One TV, April 28; Iranian FARS News Agency, May 4).

Also simultaneously, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Rumyantsev have announced broader nuclear cooperation than before, even while claiming that such activity is coordinated with the European negotiators (Xinhua, April 26; Vremya novostei, May 12). Thus Russia is delivering up to 100 tons of nuclear fuel to the factory at Bushehr even though no treaty has been signed on returning the spent fuel (RIA-Novosti, April 29). Even though Rumyantsev has tried to detail the controls on spent fuel that Russia seeks to impose, it is highly unlikely that it or other providers could resist the gains to be made from further sales of nuclear technology and materials to Iran or that they could adequately supervise the handling and return of spent fuel (Vremya novostei, May 12). Russia appears to be hedging its bets and trying to play both sides against the middle.

The recent arrest of former Russian atomic energy minister Yevgeny Adamov on U.S. embezzlement charges (see EDM, May 11) may lead to interesting disclosures about Russian support for Iran’s nuclear program. Moscow undoubtedly has reason to be concerned about his possible revelations concerning the nature of nuclear deals with Iran, who sanctioned them, and who received how much money for these deals (Argumenty i fakty, May 12).

Russia may publicly oppose Tehran’s plans, whose rationale, given Iran’s abundant energy holdings, still makes no sense to most observers. But it has clearly refused to do anything to compel Iran to comply. The usual interests that apparently govern Russian policies towards Iran have evidently continued to assert their primacy in Russia’s policymaking process. The Iran deal would satisfy Russia’s major military and nuclear energy lobbies in their drive to make money to fund their assorted projects. Moscow would also benefit from having a friendly Iran that does not support Muslim insurgents in Central Asia and the Caucasus and having a reliable partner against American dominance in the Gulf and Caspian Sea.

Therefore it is highly unlikely that Moscow will take any severe action against Iran should Tehran break off the negotiations with Europe and resume the uranium-enrichment process. Even if Russia urges Iran to reach an accord with the EU, as it now does, it is hypothetical at best and unlikely that Moscow would support the discussion of this issue in the UN Security Council or General Assembly. It also is unclear whether Iran would pay any costs for breaking off the talks, since the EU’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, has said that if Tehran did leave the talks and resume enrichment, the case would first go to Vienna, meaning the IAEA. As that agency has little power to do anything against Iran and would have even less clout if Russia opposed such action, it is clear that Putin has staked out a position where he can pose as an opponent of proliferation, while simultaneously allowing it to continue through the support of other agencies of the Russian government.