The Iranian leadership’s announcement that Tehran has successfully enriched uranium prompted two types of reaction among Russia’s analytic community. Most nuclear experts flatly dismiss Iran’s overly triumphant claims, arguing that the country’s specialists are pursuing routine research, that, if anything, the Islamic Republic is still years away from building an atomic weapon, and that there is basically no reason for worry. But a number of influential political analysts contend that, whatever the true significance of the Iranians’ latest technological achievement, Tehran is hell-bent on obtaining a nuclear bomb and this process can hardly be stopped. Remarkably, the mixed signals coming from Russian savants leave the Kremlin foreign policy and security establishment in a kind of limbo: it would appear that, either way, Russia — or the world community for that matter — cannot do much about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Although the world’s leading powers have expressed serious concern that Iran continues to advance its nuclear program in defiance of the United Nations’ demands, Russia’s nuclear physicists are unanimous in their skeptical assessment of the Iranian scientists’ progress in thermonuclear fusion technologies. Most Russian experts hold that the Iranian media have exaggerated the level of sophistication of their country’s nuclear technology, which, they contend, is fairly low-level. Academician and nuclear expert Yevgeny Velikhov, who heads the renowned Kurchatov Institute, bluntly described some of the Iranian claims as “fairy tales” that reveal the “full incompetence” of the authors.
Other Russian specialists, such as the deputy director of the Institute for Security of the Development of the Nuclear Energy Sector, Igor Linge, also believe that the Iran nuclear problem is overrated to a large extent. What Iranians had conducted, they contend, was just a “laboratory test.” Enriching uranium on an industrial scale requires thousands of centrifuges — not 164 that were involved in the Iranian experiment — and “each has to be very special,” Linge argues. Thus the material that the Iranian scientists obtained is only the raw product used for fuel in nuclear power stations. Nuclear warheads require not a 3.5% enrichment, but 80-90%, most Russian specialists note. In the opinion of Viktor Mikhailov, the head of the Strategic Stability Institute and Russia’s former minister of the nuclear industry, Iran’s latest move has nothing to do with a military program.
The experts’ assessment has likely influenced a shift in the Kremlin’s stance on Tehran’s defiant behavior. Initially, Moscow joined the United States in censuring the Iranian leadership for its unwillingness to suspend uranium enrichment activities and come to terms with the requests of the international community. But while Washington urged the U.N. Security Council to take “strong steps” to preserve its credibility, Moscow has indicated that it is not ready to denounce Iran as a threat to international peace and security. “There is no reason for punitive measures yet,” Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Andrei Denisov said in New York on April 12. “There is no evidence of noncompliance with the nonproliferation [treaty].”
There are a number of high-profile Russian commentators, however, who suggest there is a need to distinguish between the present-day status of Iran’s nuclear program and the country’s long-term strategic objectives. This group of analysts holds that the Iranian leadership is pursuing a very consistent and determined policy with the ultimate goal of turning the country into a regional nuclear superpower on par with Pakistan, India, or China. “It is a very normal, natural development and to expect anything different would be senseless,” argues Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the Moscow-based Middle East Institute.
Satanovsky and other like-minded experts believe that Iran, which aspires to become the undisputed leader of the Islamic world, sees nuclear status as an absolutely indispensable attribute needed to prop up its geopolitical aspirations. In a way, they say, joining the “nuclear club” has become a kind of Iranian national idea that the country’s leaders are simply not going to renounce.
Ironically, some Russian political thinkers say, the current intractable situation was mainly created by Washington’s stubborn attempts to isolate Iran’s Islamists following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. But Iran is a proud and ancient nation that simply cannot put up with being geopolitically marginalized. The nuclear project, the argument goes, is perceived by Tehran as the surest way to break out of strategic isolation and return from the periphery to the international center stage. A nation that was repeatedly branded by the world’s only superpower as pariah, a rogue state, and a member of the “axis of evil” simply did not have any other options to reassert itself, some Russian commentators suggest.
But the suggestion that the international community is dealing not so much with the mundane process of uranium enrichment — a development that can be discussed — as with the national idea — which is non-negotiable — implies that the world’s powers do not have much leverage over Iran. Indeed, for a number of Russian observers, a realistic policy agenda should be less focused on attempts to stop Iranian nuclear program and more on promoting the non-aggression pact between Iran and Israel.
(Rossiiskaya gazeta, Izvestiya, Nezavisimaya gazeta, Kommersant, Novye izvestiya, RFE/RL April 13; Gazeta.ru, Strana.ru, April 12)