Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 69

Among the government personnel changes the Kremlin announced on March 28, Bush administration officials are said to be looking at one in particular: the ouster of Yevgeny Adamov as Russian atomic energy minister and his replacement by Aleksandr Rumyantsev, the former head of the Kurchatov nuclear research institute in Moscow. Adamov’s unexpected dismissal–he was also the only victim of the Kremlin’s reshuffle not to be appointed to another government post–is important for what it could say about Russia’s performance in the area of nuclear nonproliferation. Adamov was an aggressive promoter of Russian nuclear technology exports, and is believed by some U.S. officials to be at least partly responsible for the transfer of sensitive technologies to Iran. Washington is clearly hoping that Adamov’s departure signals a new willingness by the Kremlin to address U.S. concerns about Russia’s proliferation record in general, and that it will mean a tightening up of Russian export controls with respect to Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation in particular.

That some in Moscow saw the change atop the Atomic Energy Ministry (Minatom) in much the same light was suggested by the daily Russian newspaper Kommersant, which said soon after the government shakeup that the Kremlin had sacked Adamov because he had been “excessively active in reaching nuclear deals with Iran.” More than ten days into the new Rumyantsev era, however, there has been no clear indication that Adamov’s departure will have any immediate impact on Russian policy in this area. During a first interview given to the press last week, for example, Rumyantsev hinted that he would continue Adamov’s policy of pushing Russian nuclear development projects both at home and abroad. He had nothing to say on the question of Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation (Izvestia, April 6).

More to the point, perhaps, another top Russian nuclear energy official went out of his way last week to indicate that Minatom has no intention of bending to Washington’s demands and curbing its activities in Iran. Russian State Secretary and Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Bulat Nigmatullin was quoted by reporters as saying that “all these accusations we’ve been hearing from the United States are absolutely unfounded, and [are] only aimed at weakening Russia’s ability to compete on the international energy market.” Nigmatullin went on to repeat the standard Russian argument that Moscow is in violation of no international agreements in Iran and that it has every intention of completing work at the controversial Bushehr nuclear power plant in the Persian Gulf country. He also repeated another standard Minatom line, namely, that the Bushehr project is “very advantageous for Russia” and that Russian success there will likely gain it new customers for nuclear projects in other countries.

Indeed, Nigmatullin’s remarks appeared to be part of a fresh government effort to justify continued Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation. Played out in part on the Kremlin-connected Strana.ru web site, Russian commentaries highlighted what they said was Washington’s “double-standard” in opposing the Bushehr project. They suggested, on the one hand, that U.S. efforts to nix the project were aimed primarily not at stemming the proliferation of nuclear technologies, but at precluding the emergence of Minatom as a major competitor of U.S. nuclear industries on the international market. U.S. double standards were also evidenced, they said, by the fact that companies from several European countries–and some from the United States as well–were themselves active in Iran and were responsible for supplying Tehran with sensitive “dual-use technologies.” In this same context, they intimated that U.S. opposition to Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation is part of an effort to keep the Iranian market open for Western firms once Tehran finally emerges from its diplomatic isolation (Strana.ru, Russian agencies, April 4; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 5).

It is, of course, possible that Rumyantsev has simply not yet been able to put his imprint on Minatom policy in this area and that the remarks outlined above reflect bureaucratic inertia left over from the Adamov period. But there seems little evidence that Moscow is reconsidering its cooperation with Iran in other areas either. On March 28, for example, the day of the government reshuffle, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov announced to reporters that Moscow is negotiating the sale of high-tech missile defense systems to Iran. Klebanov, who oversees Russian defense industrial matters and is reported to be close to President Vladimir Putin, refused to specify precisely which system was involved in the Russia-Iranian negotiations. But he reiterated earlier Russian arguments that Iran as a sovereign country has every right to purchase Russian weaponry and that those systems under consideration by the two countries are defensive in nature.

More recently, moreover, a top Russian Defense Ministry official dismissed U.S. characterizations of Iran as a “rogue state”–and one which supports international terrorism–during remarks before European and Russian lawmakers. Leonid Ivashov, the hardline head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s international military cooperation department, suggested that Washington’s views in this area are outmoded and that Moscow had agreed to sell military hardware to Tehran because of “serious changes” in Iranian policies. He also accused the United States of selling ten times as many weapons to the volatile Middle East as Russia (AFP, April 7).

As is the case with Nigmatullin and Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation, it is possible, in light of the recent Russian Defense Ministry changes, that Ivashov does not represent the final word on the subject of Iranian-Russian defense cooperation. And, in fact, some Russian reports have suggested that his days in the Defense Ministry may be numbered now that former Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov has been named to the defense minister post (Kommersant, March 30; Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, No. 11, April).

But if there is no concrete reason yet to assume that Moscow may be willing to accommodate Washington by limiting its defense cooperation with Iran, there were at least some hints Klebanov drooped that the Kremlin has not entirely ruled out a willingness to bargain with the Bush administration in this area. During the same appearance before reporters in which he reiterated Russia’s right to sell arms to Iran, Klebanov appeared also to go out of his way to underline that Moscow had, in fact, not yet breached an informal 1995 agreement by which the Kremlin had pledged to suspend arms deliveries to Iran. He also dismissed reports that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s recent visit to Russia (see the Monitor, March 20) had resulted in the finalization of a Russian-Iranian arms deal. Klebanov’s remarks appeared to offer at least the hint that, at a time of transition in Moscow and in Washington, the Kremlin might be willing to trade some moderation in its arms dealings with Iran in exchange for better relations with the United States.