Russian officials seem to be redefining the limits of nuclear cooperation with Iran, indicating that they are prepared to exert pressure on Tehran to moderate its nuclear stance. That does not mean, however, Moscow is ready to support US and EU efforts to get Iran to abandon efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
On March 27, a payment dispute that had halted Russian work on the construction of an Iranian nuclear power plant appeared to be resolved. A representative of Atomstroiexport, the Russian state-controlled firm overseeing the project, announced that Iran had paid a portion of its arrears, clearing the way for a resumption of construction. At the same time, the representative emphasized that while construction could resume, "it is still too early to discuss the issue of nuclear fuel supplies," the Atomstroiexport spokeswoman, Irina Yesipova, told the Izvestiya daily.
Russian officials insist the interruption in Bushehr construction was due solely to Iran's difficulties in paying for work performed. But many international experts believe Russia's actions were motivated by broader geopolitical considerations.
Over the last several months, Russian officials have become increasingly disenchanted with Iran's confrontational behavior concerning the nuclear issue. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been outspoken in his defense of Iran's nuclear program, often going out of his way to taunt US President George W. Bush and other global leaders. It now appears that even Moscow has grown tired of Ahmadinejad's antics, feeling that they needlessly aggravate what is already a sensitive issue fraught with regional, if not global danger. The March 27 Izvestiya article, for example, quoted unnamed Iranian diplomats as urging international leaders "not to pay attention to the rhetoric" of Ahmadinejad.
Various interest groups in Iran are "trying to minimize his [Ahmadinejad's] contact with the outside world, so that he does not say too much," the article stated. It went on to site a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying that Tehran's "position should not be judged by Ahmadinejad's statements."
Iran's defiance on the nuclear issue has forced the Russian government, under great diplomatic pressure from Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin, to concede the dangers involved in Iran's project, namely that Tehran aims to develop nuclear weapons. Thus, the ground on which Russia can defend Iran has been significantly narrowed because of Tehran's truculence. As late as of October 2006, former Russian defense minister and now First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov flatly denied that Iran was capable of obtaining weapons-grade uranium. But in January 2007, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suddenly stated that there might be a "hidden" military agenda to Iran's nuclear program. Meanwhile, Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov recently repeated previous statements that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be against Russian interests.
Reports suggested that, prior to the latest payment of unspecified amount, Iran was two months late on Bushehr payments, which are believed to run about $25 million per month. Some international experts believe, however, that the amount of arrears is closer to $100 million. Thus, it is plausible that Moscow is taking the financial factor into account. After all, Russia has justified its policies towards Iran on the basis of its economic interests. Sergei Kirienko, the head of Russia's nuclear industry, has announced that Russia will not be stuck with paying for Bushehr out of its own pocket. What makes this problem even more aggravating for Moscow is that hitherto Iran has probably approached the problem of nuclear power on two tracks, uranium enrichment and plutonium. Bushehr, which is not directly connected to its military program, is supposed to provide plutonium. But it appears that Tehran has made a policy decision to go for broke on uranium enrichment as fast as it can to forestall UN pressure. If that is the case, then the Bushehr plant would be of little value to anyone. And without Iranian repayments, Russia stands to lose its investment. In view of the importance to Moscow of its friendship with Iran, this is more than a minor or inconsequential embarrassment.
Kremlin displeasure with Iran certainly played a role in the March 26 statement, issued jointly by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, demanding that Iranian officials fulfill United Nations Security Council resolutions concerning Tehran's nuclear program.
It would appear that Iran has few diplomatic options, other than to bow to Moscow's wishes. Tehran over the last several years has oriented its foreign policy to suit Russian and Chinese tastes, clearly aiming to use Moscow's and Beijing's support as a counterbalance to pressure exerted by the United States and EU. Iran's diplomatic dependency would explain why Iranian officials suddenly responded favorably to a Russian proposal to form a cartel of major natural gas-producing states along the lines of the oil club, known as OPEC. The viability of a gas cartel would require the participation of major Gulf producers, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- states that have grown increasingly alarmed over Iran's regional geopolitical aspirations. During a tour of the region in February to garner support for the cartel idea, Putin likely heard from the leaders of many Gulf states that Iran needed to be restrained. The toughened Russian stance on Iranian nuclear cooperation could be seen as a signal to Gulf leaders, demonstrating to them that Moscow takes their concerns into account.
Russian pressure on Iran under no circumstances should be viewed as an expression of support for the US-EU position on the nuclear issue. Russia remains interested in continuing robust ties with Iran in an effort to develop nuclear and energy cooperation. As a Russian diplomat told the author in 2005, Russia will not be the fourth wheel of the EU's car, and instead will strive to maintain diplomatic independence.
On March 27, the same day as the apparent resolution of the payment crisis, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a policy review, signed by Putin, which assailed US policy. The policy review accused the Bush administration of showing an "increasing disregard for the fundamental principles of international law." It went on to warn the United States that its current diplomatic stance toward Iran risked igniting a "clash of civilizations."
"The international community should not risk escalating the situation around Iran and should wait for the United States to make a good-faith effort to normalize relations with Tehran," the document added.
Stephen Blank is a professor at the US Army War College. The views expressed this article do not in any way represent the views of the US Army, Defense Department or the US Government.