Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 43

Russian officials have hailed Moscow’s announcement of a potentially historic deal with Iran, concerning its continued involvement in developing the nuclear power facility at Bushehr, as a breakthrough. Alexander Maryasov, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, believes it removes all concerns about the possibility of Tehran utilizing such facilities in pursuit of a covert nuclear weapons program. However, even within Russia, leading experts have expressed skepticism over Iran’s intentions to abandon a nuclear program.

The deal itself, signed on February 27, seems simple in its nature: Russia will continue its essential role in helping Iran while the latter will return spent nuclear fuel extracted from Bushehr, denying the opportunity to gain weapons-grade plutonium. Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), suggested that the deal would pave the way for the Bushehr reactor to begin operating within 18 months. Given the short timescale involved, speculation has mounted in Moscow as to how soon Russian nuclear materials may be shipped to Iran.

Although domestic criticism of the negotiated contractual amendment has been muted within Russia, Alexander Pikayev, a senior researcher at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, noted the weakness of the non-proliferation regime, since it largely concentrates on Iran’s intent in Bushehr and ignores its other facilities. Viktor Mizin, a former Foreign Ministry adviser at the research institute, was more pointed: “Any system of checks and controls can only work if the country that signs up to it is ready to observe it. There is an entire network of nuclear facilities in Iran, many of them underground. Huge funds are being poured into this sector.”

Nonetheless, though the detail relating to the controversy surrounding Bushehr has been openly questioned, it is worthwhile understanding that Russia did not intend to solve the non-proliferation issue as such. Its aspirations were more firmly rooted in securing its long-standing commitment to furthering the interests of Russia’s nuclear technology industry. In working out a plausible path to achieving this under international scrutiny, Moscow has an eye to its relations with Washington, seeking to deflect accusations of aiding Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Sergei Ivanov, Russia’s Defense Minister, commented in Moscow on March 1 that Russia perceives its own self-interest in dissuading the United States from considering force as an option in its evolving Iran policy: “This would definitely not be in Russia’s interest and Russia will do everything to prevent events in Iran from following the Iraqi scenario.” The Bushehr deal must be seen in that context.

Rumyantsev confirmed Rosatom plans to build nuclear power plants in Bulgaria, China, and Slovakia as well as Iran. There are also prospects for Rosatom to develop nuclear plants elsewhere in Iran, depending on the quantity required by the Iranian government, with efforts currently focused on Ahvaz, where additional power units may be constructed by Russian engineers. Rumyantsev also sought to establish Russian credentials for the safe transportation of spent nuclear fuel, pointing to its experience in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Ukraine. “We have the experience, as well as special containers, special trains, special security arrangements, and satellite communications. In addition, everything is under the control of the IAEA.” Thus, Russian economic interests in the field of nuclear energy are being pursued vigorously on an international scale, and the suggestion of a mechanism to ensure no dual use or weaponization occurs at Bushehr promotes these interests.

Two further complicating factors at Bushehr are the large numbers of Russian employees working at the facility and Russian involvement in supplying security jointly with their Iranian hosts. It is estimated that Russia currently has around 2,100 personnel working at Bushehr, and this figure is set to rise shortly to around 3,000. One key difference between construction work carried out there and Russian experience elsewhere in the CIS relates to the subterranean elements of the building work. Andrei Gorelov, a Russian engineer working at Bushehr told NTV in Moscow that Russian workers have dug and equipped 1,000 km of communications and tunnels, though it is not officially for military purposes or because of U.S. threats.

These factors may make some Russian officials think it less likely that these facilities could be subjected to limited air strikes from Western powers. But Ivanov’s conviction that Russia must work hard to avoid American intervention in Iran drives Moscow to talk up diplomatic pressure through the EU and also present Iran’s peaceful intent at any given opportunity.

Russian diplomacy in the area of the Iranian nuclear program is becoming more sophisticated than its earlier efforts to dissuade Washington from using force in Iraq. The Bushehr deal reveals little about Tehran’s actual commitment to abandoning any nuclear aspirations, but it shows the depth and planning in Russian security thinking to forestall a unilateral U.S. solution at a later date. Russian President Vladimir Putin therefore, during his recent summit meeting with President George W. Bush in Bratislava, could easily pay lip service to the importance of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Rosatom’s apparent solution to concerns over Russian assistance to Iran gives Putin evidence to offer the West in establishing Moscow’s role as a peaceful arbiter. Evidently Russia’s economic and geopolitical interests in Iran are set to expand.

(NTV Mir, February 28; Itar-Tass, February 28, March 2; RIA-Novosti, March 1; Interfax, March 1)