Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 49

A top Iranian energy official, speaking on Iranian state television only days before a high-profile visit by President Mohammad Khatami to Moscow, has unexpectedly criticized Russia for delays in completing the controversial Bushehr nuclear power plant. The remarks, which come amid a general dampening of expectations which have preceded Khatami’s visit, suggest both that the Iranian-Russian relationship is not problem free, and that Moscow at least may be moving with some caution vis-a-vis Iran in order to avoid thoroughly antagonizing Washington.

The Iranian complaints came from Assadollah Sabouri, deputy head of the country’s Atomic Energy Commission, who said on March 8 that Russian contractors had managed to complete only half the construction work on the first nuclear reactor at the Bushehr facility, despite the fact that Russia and Iran had signed a contract for the reactor back in 1994. “Russian experts have fully mastered nuclear technology,” Sabouri was quoted as saying, “but their management and planning is not on a level with their technical quality.” Although some Russian and Iranian sources have maintained that the first reactor at the Bushehr plant will be operational sometime in 2002, others have suggested that its completion could be up to two years late (Reuters, AFP, March 9).

The US$800 million Bushehr project is important to Russia for several reasons. By defying strenuous U.S. objections to the project, Moscow has used the Bushehr project to help cement friendly relations between Russia and Iran. Simultaneously, the project has provided much-needed revenue for Russia’s hard-pressed nuclear energy industry and boosted the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry’s aggressive efforts to export more nuclear technology abroad. For precisely that second reason Sabouri’s complaints were probably heard with some irritation in Moscow.

It is unclear whether Tehran’s apparent dissatisfaction with the work of Russian contractors on the first reactor at Bushehr will have any negative impact on a second project at the same facility–or on this week’s Russian-Iranian talks. In January Russian Atomic Energy Ministry officials announced that work had begun on a second nuclear reactor at the Bushehr facility (see the Monitor, January 25), and the project will presumably be high on the list of the topics Russian and Iranian officials will address during Khatami’s visit. Indeed, a trip to a nuclear power facility in St. Petersburg is reportedly included on the itinerary of the Iranian president’s four-day visit to Russia (Izvestia, March 12).

While the note of discord between Russia and Iran over the Bushehr project is probably not of lasting significance (there has been intermittent grumbling from both sides since construction began), it is of interest that it comes amid a general dampening of expectations which preceded today’s meeting between Khatami and President Vladimir Putin. Khatami’s visit to Russia–the first by the Iranian leader since his election in May of 1997–is undoubtedly an important event and one designed to further solidify relations which have grown closer over the past several years. But where there had earlier been at least intimations that Moscow and Tehran were on the verge of greatly upgrading their ties–one source spoke of the creation of an Iranian-Indian-Russian “strategic axis–Russian and Iranian sources have suggested more recently that a cooperation agreement to be signed today by Putin and Khatami will be more prosaic. The presidents will sign “the customary framework treaty, indicating that Russia and Iran are developing good relations,” a Russian diplomatic source was quoted as saying on March 7. The document will apparently contain no mention of a Russian-Iranian “strategic partnership.” It will likewise include no provisions specifically dealing with military cooperation (Al-Sharq al-Awsat [London], December 29; Russian agencies, March 7; AFP, March 8).

Today’s Moscow meeting–and Khatami’s four-day visit more generally–is still likely to be viewed with little enthusiasm in Washington. Among other things, and the Russian-Iranian friendship document aside, the two sides are expected to continue discussions on the subject of new Russian arms dealings with Iran. That issue made headlines last November, when Moscow informed Washington that it would no longer observe an informal 1995 agreement with the Clinton administration which limited Russian arms deliveries to Iran. Russian-Iranian momentum in this area picked up additional speed during Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s December visit to Tehran. More recently, a top official for the Russian state arms trading company Rosoboroneksport, Viktor Komardin, said that new arms contracts between Russia and Iran could be signed by the middle of this year. Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, meanwhile, claimed that Russia could earn up to US$7 billion by selling military hardware to Tehran over the next several years. And while some observers have said that this figure is clearly exaggerated, there have nevertheless been suggestions that Iran could move into third place among Moscow’s major arms buyers–right behind India and China (AFP, March 9; Russian agencies, March 11; Moscow Times, March 12).