In June 2004 International Atomic Energy Agency Chairman Mohammad El Baradei announced that the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr was not the focus of Iran’s nuclear program (Yahoo.com, June 30). This statement naturally pleased Russia, which can now state that its program of nuclear assistance to Iran has nothing to do with nuclear proliferation. Yet El Baradei’s statement contradicts the conventional wisdom regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
For some thirteen years America and Israel, numerous independent non-governmental experts, and West European intelligence agencies have warned that Iran is building nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities with substantial Russian assistance. Despite occasional sanctions imposed by U.S. administrations on some Russian firms, Moscow has continued to stonewall when faced with pressure to desist from this assistance. El Baradei’s announcement can only reinforce that stonewalling.
Russian authorities have claimed, and undoubtedly will continue to claim, that the pressure is due to a rivalry for market share, that Iran is not building nuclear weapons, that it faithfully observes IAEA rules, and more. At the same time, the IAEA, though it knows and has demonstrated in its recent report that Iran is not complying with its membership in the Nonproliferation Treaty, lacks the political will to say so. It fears having to go to the U.N. Security Council where sanctions would have to be discussed and subject to a probable veto by Moscow if not Beijing, another proliferator to Iran. Instead it contents itself with saying that Iran is in breach of its obligations under the treaty (IAEA.int). Nevertheless Russia’s authorities and experts have not changed their minds about Iran despite these revelations and the fact that Deputy Chief of Staff General Yuri Baluyevsky admitted in 2002 that Iran had (not “was building”) tactical nuclear weapons (Kremlin International News Broadcast, May 24, 2002).
More recently Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov welcomed the IAEA resolution and claimed it was not accusatory. Instead, he believes that it is part of the process toward removing doubts about Iran’s conformity to IAEA and international regulations (Itar-Tass, June 22). Earlier he emphasized that Russia would support a draft IAEA resolution that reflects that Iran is cooperating with the IAEA but must go even further to answer all pending questions (Interfax, June 17). At the same time the Minister of Atomic Energy, Aleksandr Rumyantsev, supports new projects with Iran as well as existing ones and emphasized, as he has repeatedly in the past, that Russia “will never bow to foreign pressure to stop nuclear cooperation with Iran” (irna.ir, June 18, Itar-Tass, June 18). He also stressed that every meeting of the IAEAÕs Board of Governors moves nearer to closing the Iran dossier when, in fact, Iran continues to stonewall the IAEA, Europe, and the United States and is again building centrifuges (Itar-Tass, June 18).
Russian motives are quite obvious. Rumyantsev, along with Russian experts on Iran such as Rajab Safarov, the director of the Russian Center for Contemporary Iranian Studies, believe that Russia stands a good chance to win the contract for constructing a second nuclear power plant in Bushehr to go along with its assistance in building the first one (RIA Novosti, June 22). This suggests that among Russia’s motives, as has been the case all along, are the pecuniary ones of winning contracts and revenue, even though Moscow knows full well what Iran is up to.
Last year, all Russia’s military press outlets reported that Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, which can carry a payload of up to 1,000kg for a distance of 1,500 kilometers — i.e. to Tel-Aviv — was underway. The missile’s range includes not just Israel, but also many U.S. bases in that radius. Iran is also building a still more powerful missile, the Shahab-4, and is approaching Moscow about help in constructing a civilian version of the Shahab-3 as a satellite. However, Tehran is also reportedly in contact with North Korea about converting these rockets into ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead (Izvestiya, June 17). These developments, added to Balyuevsky’s statement in 2002, confirm that the pattern of Russian mendacity and stonewalling on Iran that began over a decade ago continues (Kremlin International Broadcast, May 24, 2002). While Iran marches inexorably toward realizing its goal of possessing a nuclear weapon and a delivery system that could deploy it in the Middle East and beyond, Russia seeks profits, influence in Iran and the Gulf, Iran’s support for the status quo in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and help in reducing American influence in and around Iran. As long as these aims are operative, Moscow is unlikely to seriously cooperate either with Western Europe or with the United States in stemming the flow of military technology and nuclear assistance to Iran.
Nor is it likely that any real progress can be made in arresting Iran’s nuclear progress. In other words, absent a united front among Security Council members and nuclear powers, Iran’s successful entry into the nuclear club will be merely a matter of timing.
Russia’s obduracy regarding Iran raises questions as to just how well it will adhere to the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) that it recently joined. Its record on chemical and biological warfare treaties does not inspire much confidence, and its attempt to keep it hands free to support Iran are at odds with its membership in the PSI. Moscow’s equivocal positions on Iran and North Korea and its continuing proliferation of weapons to Iraq and Iran through 2003 if not later, also raise questions about how much its leaders really feel menaced by nuclear and other forms of proliferation. Perhaps they are actually just mouthing stock phrases without really feeling much urgency to act to forestall those threats and implement their rhetoric. Beyond those concerns, if Russia’s motives for joining the PSI are dubious, how can it really be a genuine partner with respect to this and other comparable threats to what should be common interests?