On Sunday, February 26, Tehran announced an agreement about creating an Iranian-Russian joint venture to enrich uranium. Despite the fanfare, the deal does not represent a genuine agreement that overcomes the crisis generated by Iran’s violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In fact, both sides concede that it only represents an agreement in principle to create such a joint venture of which few details have been released. Indeed, Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki confirmed that Iran would not stop the enrichment process that it began last week and which is creating fuel for possible use in atomic bombs. Moscow revealed this clause by calling upon Iran to stop enrichment and readmit IAEA inspectors and by having Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claim that Russia sees the joint venture and a moratorium on enrichment as integral parts of the same process.
In fact, Iran has agreed to nothing substantive as yet, and by all accounts the negotiations up to this point were difficult and will continue in Moscow. All this gives rise to the suspicion that there is an element of charade in the entire process. Russia’s proposal seems to be part of an effort to prevent the UN from discussing Iran’s violation of the NPT and nuclear program so that it does not have to take a public stand on this difficult issue. Indeed, Moscow stated that it would do everything possible to keep this topic contained within the IAEA, so it would not have to vote yes or no on sanctions against Iran, which it opposes. Iran undoubtedly does not want to go to the UN and once again has threatened to terminate the talks if the UN were to discuss the issue and even try to punish its violation of the treaty.
At the same time there is abundant evidence that Moscow sought to link the continued provision of materials for the operation of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr to support for the joint-venture project in order to gain Iran’s acceptance of this initiative, its own attempt to try to twist Iran’s hands. But since no details have been announced, there is no reason to believe that Iran will stop enrichment, especially as it is convinced that the UN action will be blocked or that China and Russia will neutralize any action the Security Council might take.
These factors could explain why Russian analysts and officials do not claim that the problem has been solved or that a genuine agreement is at hand. Certainly the issue of Russia collaborating with Iran on uranium enrichment is not a new one, as it was raised in the past, e.g. in May 2005, but went nowhere. Therefore this agreement in principle is unlikely to actually take place in practice as long as Iran insists on its right to a full nuclear-fuel cycle at home and actually carries out this threat. Only if Russia can prevail upon Iran to abandon this stance will there be movement towards a genuine solution to this problem.
This latest development is neither a done deal nor one reached out of altruism. Reports coming from Moscow suggest that this joint venture will only last two or three years and, since Iran probably cannot build a bomb within that time frame, Russia loses nothing by agreeing to “cease” enrichment. Second, Russia is apparently stating that Iran could continue its nuclear conversion efforts in Arak and Isfahan, but that activities at Natanz related to uranium enrichment should be done by Russia to achieve a relatively acceptable agreement. Furthermore Iran apparently waived sanctions against the Russian contractors in the amount of $40 million for contractual failures to make deadlines in the construction of Bushehr (perhaps these were deliberate failures to keep leverage upon Iran) and proposed using Atomstroieksport to create another two gigawatts of capacity at Bushehr, i.e. two new power units there.
Therefore it is hard to disagree with German Foreign Minister Frank Steinmeyer’s assessment that this agreement really aims to split the united front of the EU and the United States and that Russia, whose diplomats have all along maintained that they would not be the fourth wheel of the EU-3, is collaborating with this plan to avoid having to confront the results of Iran’s proliferation. The negotiations on the details promise to be long and stubborn and to provide a façade that Iran is actually negotiating in good faith when the UN hears the IAEA referral on March 6. That way Iran can ride out the embarrassment of UN action and Russia will be let off the hook for now. But nobody should think that Iran, which has pursued nuclear weapons for at least 20 years in defiance of its own signature on the Non-Proliferation Treaty and with Russia’s conscious support in the past, will suddenly renounce the keys to the nuclear kingdom and hand them over to Moscow anytime soon.
(Kommersant, Deutsche Press Agentur, Agentstvo Voyennkh Novostei, Itar-Tass, Financial Times, February 27; Interfax, May 24, 2005, February 25, 27; Kyodo World Service, February 27; RIA-Novosti, February 26; www.nti.org, February 24; Iran News Television, February 26)