The never-ending confrontation between Washington and Moscow over Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran was back in the news last week following the approval by the U.S. Congress of a resolution condemning Iran’s nuclear program. The document, passed on May 6 by an overwhelming 376-3 vote, accused Iran of “continuing deceptions and falsehoods” involving the development of nuclear weapons. In addition to urging Europe and Japan to cut commercial and energy ties with Iran, the resolution called on Russia “to suspend its nuclear cooperation with Iran and refrain from making an agreement on supply of nuclear fuel to the reactor in Bushehr” until Iran halts “finally and verifiably all activities designed to ensure creation of its own nuclear arsenal” (AP, May 6; Pravda.ru, May 7).
Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry (which is to be reorganized as the Federal Atomic Energy Agency) reacted sharply to the U.S. resolution. One ministry spokesman said on May 7 that “We see no reason why we should end our nuclear energy cooperation with Iran.” He insisted that “Moscow will fulfill its obligations to Tehran to the end.” Another ministry representative said on the same day that Iran is in full compliance with demands laid down by the International Atomic Energy Agency and that Moscow’s own nuclear activities in Iran likewise conform to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “Russia has international obligations,” the representative added, “and to discontinue nuclear cooperation with Iran without any legal basis or in the absence…of a decision by the IAEA or the UN Security Council would be illegal” (AFP, Russian Agencies, May 7).
On the same day, a high-ranking Iranian government official was quoted in Tehran as saying that Iran wants to team up with Russia and European countries to produce enriched uranium as fuel for nuclear power reactors. Hossein Mousavian, the secretary of the foreign policy committee of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that “We could…start talking about setting up a consortium, which would include European countries and Russia, to work together on this program.” He suggested that a joint effort of this sort would help to remove fears that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. (Reuters, May 7).
The resolution passed by U.S. lawmakers and the comments made in Moscow and Tehran come as the international battle over Iran’s nuclear program approaches a crucial juncture. Later this month Iran is to make a declaration of its nuclear-related activities to the IAEA, and the agency’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, will follow that up with a report on Tehran’s progress. The key event is a June meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors, but analysts are suggesting that the June meeting could prove a disappointment for both Tehran and Washington. They say that the Iranian government is unlikely to get what it wants – that is, removal of the issue of its nuclear activities from the IAEA’s agenda – while the United States may be unable to provide sufficient proof of Iran’s noncompliance with its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That would frustrate Washington’s hopes of getting the issue transferred to the UN Security Council (Arms Control Today, May, 2004; AFP, May 6; Reuters, May 7).
Moscow’s role in this drama will likely become clearer later this week, when the Russian government is scheduled to host a visit by a high-ranking Iranian delegation. Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation has been a regular irritant in relations between Washington and Moscow since the mid-1990s, and the May 6 U.S. Congress resolution is but the most recent manifestation of American efforts to get Russia to terminate the US$800 million dollar nuclear project (some Russian sources put the value at more than US$1 billion) at the Bushehr site.
Late last year there were hints that Russia might be prepared to seek an accommodation of some sort with Washington on the issue (RFE/RL, September 26, AP, November 6, 2003). But positions on both sides seem to have hardened since that time as bilateral relations more generally have turned chilly. And Moscow probably has less incentive now to cooperate with Washington: The post-September 11 rapprochement between the two countries is mostly a thing of the past and, against a background of mounting U.S. difficulties in Iraq and Arab outrage over Washington’s backing for Israel, Moscow increasingly has reasons to seek better relations with the Arab world.