July 12, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 370

The Crisis in Iranian-Russian Relations over Iran's Nuclear Project (2)

July 12, 2007 | By Yossi Mansharof*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 370

The current crisis in Iranian-Russian relations focuses on two areas: a) the delay in the construction and activation of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr; and b) Russian proposal for an American-Russian radar station in Qabala.

Russia's suspicions regarding Iran's intentions have reached new heights, with Russian government representatives publicly accusing Iran of carrying out covert nuclear activity and of striving to obtain the capability to construct nuclear weapons.

In Iran, on the other hand, there are increasing calls to regard Bushehr as a litmus test for Iranian-Russian relations, alongside calls to complete the construction of the Bushehr reactor with the assistance of countries other than Russia – or, alternatively, to rely on Iran's independent capabilities.[1]

Also, high-level officials in Iran are claiming that the proposal made by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the U.S. at the G-8 summit in Germany in June 2007 – under which the U.S. would not deploy missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic for defense against Iran's ballistic missiles, but would instead use, together with Russia, the missile defense radar station located in Qabala, Azerbaijan – proves Russia's continued enmity towards Iran, which even surpasses the West's enmity towards it.

This paper will analyze the Iranian-Russian crisis as reflected in the Iranian media: [2]

Russia's Accusations

In early July 2007, Russian Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Mikhail Margelov declared that "Iran is persistently avoiding presenting clear and precise answers to the questions that it is being asked about [its] nuclear program... Accordingly, and in light of other signs, I sense that it is acting to achieve the capability to construct nuclear weapons... and is, at the most, five years away from its first nuclear test..." [3]

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak pointed out that "Iran's nuclear policy is very exasperating." [4]He accused Iran of carrying out covert nuclear activity and expressed support for the U.N. Security Council's sanctions resolution against Iran that followed the International Atomic Energy Agency's inability to confirm the nature of Iran's nuclear program.[5] Nevertheless, on June 20, 2007, during a visit to Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia would support additional sanctions against Iran only if the IAEA announced that it could no longer cooperate with Iran.[6]

The Delay in Russia's Completion and Activation of the Bushehr Reactor

The crisis in Iranian-Russian relations over Russia's completion of the Bushehr reactor, and its subsequent supply of nuclear fuel to Iran in order to activate the reactor, continues. According to statements by senior Russian officials, it appears that at this stage Russia has reservations about activating the Bushehr reactor, and is not willing to transfer the nuclear fuel required for its activation. Russia is making the activation of the reactor conditional upon Iranian cooperation with the U.N. Security Council and the IAEA.

During a visit to Iran, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Lusyokov said, "Implementing the Bushehr agreement is possible only if Iran obeys the principles of the NPT, cooperates with the IAEA, and is willing to return [all] nuclear fuel [to Russia] after its use." [7]Similarly, in early June 2007, the head of Russia's Nuclear Energy Organization Sergei Kiriyenko stressed that Iran had paid only part of the sum it had committed to paying for the Bushehr reactor construction.[8]

The Russian delegation that went to Tehran in early July 2007 for talks on the future of the Bushehr reactor returned to Russia with no answers.[9] Around the same time, Kislyak rejected Iranian nuclear engineers' claims that the reactor would be finished in September 2007, and that Iran expected to receive the promised nuclear fuel from Russia by then. He said, "[Setting] a period of two months [for the reactor to be activated] is not realistic."[10] Kiriyenko stated that it would be impossible for the reactor to be activated before 2008.[11]

As will be recalled, in spite of Russian senior officials' criticism and delays, in April 2007 Iranian Atomic Energy Organization deputy head Mohammad Saeedi promised that the reactor would nevertheless be under operation by March 2008. [12]In early July 2007, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini stated that "at present, 95% of the work in Bushehr has been completed, and the remaining issues [connected to the reactor] are already being handled."[13]

Iranian Reactions to the Russian Delays

In recent weeks, high-level Iranian officials have begun to criticize Russia's delays – at times in harsh language:

Kayhan: Russia is Acting to Prevent Iran from Going Nuclear

In a July 5, 2007 analysis titled "Russia's Place in the International System," the Iranian daily Kayhan, which is affiliated with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, wrote that Russia was exploiting global fears of Iran becoming stronger, and was acting to prevent it from going nuclear:

"...Russia's view... is that a strong Iran with nuclear capability cannot be tolerated in the region. This is because such a situation would upset the balance of power in the region – a development that is unacceptable for Russia, and is dissatisfactory for Iran's neighbors, especially her Arab neighbors. Under these circumstances, the Russians are making an effort to exploit the current conditions of consensus in order to restrict Iran's building of its strength..."[14]

Members of Iran's Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy Respond

In interviews from early June 2007, Iranian MPs who are members of Iran's Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy accused Russia of delaying activating the Bushehr reactor due to behind-the-scenes negotiations it is conducting with the U.S. Thus, they suggested three possible courses of action to resolve the crisis: Iran must use all means at its disposal to ensure that Russia meet its obligations regarding the completion and activation of the reactor; it must find other partners; or it must rely on its own capabilities.

In a July 6, 2007 interview with the ISNA news agency, Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy Vice-Chairman Mohammad Nabi Rodaki said: "If Russia intends to follow the American policy, Iran must reconsider its own policy vis-à-vis Russia... Ahmadinejad must show courage [in his dealings] with Russia... A definite timetable must be set, and if Russia fails to install all the remaining equipment in the Bushehr reactor [by the agreed-upon deadline], Iran will enter into negotiations with some countries that have announced their willingness [to cooperate with it]... Fortunately, there are many brokers able to sell the remaining equipment that Iran requires. If Putin and Russia fail to realize their commitments, we will utilize the assistance of these brokers... Countries [like] these [i.e. like Russia] have stabbed Iran in the back a number of times, and pursued a policy of saying one thing and [then] doing another. They promised to veto the recent sanctions resolution, but… the Security Council approved the sanctions...

"Russia must [decide:] It must either cooperate with Iran, or openly back America..."[15]

In a July 3, 2007 interview with the conservative news agency Mehr, committee member Elham Amin-Zadeh said: "...Unfortunately, Russia's behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Americans are the most important reason for the delay in activating the Bushehr reactor, and for their lack of cooperation in this matter... In meetings [with their Iranian counterparts], the Russians bring up pretexts such as technological and other issues – but under the current circumstances, and after years have passed since the date [set] for the activation of the Bushehr reactor, there is no justification for [such] delays and tardiness. Iran must play all its cards [to make] Russia carry out its obligations in this matter. The Bushehr reactor [will serve] a great many economic interests for Russia as well, and therefore, failure to implement it is likely to affect relations between the two countries."[16]

In a July 4, 2007 interview with ISNA, committee member Suleiman Jafarzadeh noted: "If Russia does not fulfill its obligations regarding the construction of the Bushehr plant, not only will it endanger its economic, nuclear, and political stature, but no country will trust it again... The Russians do not stand alongside Iran [in the matter of activating the reactor, even though] they know that the fate of their problems in regional issues is tied to the fate of Iran."[17]

Committee member Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh told ISNA on July 4, 2007, that "Russia has always exploited its relations with Iran – particularly in the nuclear sphere – in order to arrive at an arrangement with America [at Iran's expense]... The Russians want the Iranian nuclear issue to remain in crisis, so as to exploit it and to arrive at an arrangement with America... More than in the past, Iran must move ahead its [nuclear] plans towards independent [capability]..."[18] He added, "In light of the significant improvement in Iran's capability for building nuclear reactors, it is not worthwhile to introduce new players into this matter."[19]

In an interview with the Aftab news agency on July 4, 2007, committee member Hamid Reza Haji-Babai expressed Iran's disappointment and lack of confidence in Russia, stating, "Throughout the past years, Russia has shown that it is not a reliable and safe partner... With regard to the Bushehr reactor, we have had and we still have many problems with the Russians, and it is not clear [at all] whether they will have the Bushehr reactor ready even by the end of 2008. The completion of the reactor depends on global circumstances at that time... Russia is changing its policy to suit the conditions and needs of global politics, and of its [own] changing interests..." [20] He added that "the Russian government is taking evasive stances, and in general in its important relations on the international [level], it is not considered to be a government worthy of trust... The Iranian government must give the Russian government a serious reminder, and must take measures that will lead the Russians to see their interests as tied with those of Iran." [21]

Committee member Rashid Jalali told the conservative Mehr news agency on July 3, 2007, that "[Russia's] delays, and its violation of its obligations, prove that Iran must not be dependent upon the international community in producing nuclear fuel and in constructing nuclear reactors... If it transpires that there is no technical reason for these delays, Iran must sue Russia for damages, and must submit a complaint about it to the international courts."[22]

Committee member Hossein Sobhani-Nia told the Mehr news agency on July 3, 2007: "Russia's recurring delays show that they are not acting honestly [with regard to] their obligations to Iran, and this is clear to most senior [Iranian] regime officials... The Russian delays in activating the Bushehr reactor and in transferring the nuclear fuel will doubtless only make Iran more determined in handling its nuclear program and in [achieving] the nuclear fuel cycle." [23]

Committee member Javad Jahangirzadeh told Kayhan on July 8, 2007, that "the issue of the Bushehr reactor must constitute a basis for Iran's senior officials and foreign policy officials to [reach] a precise diagnosis [regarding whether to] stop or continue the cooperation with the Russians in various areas... With this conduct, the Russians will lose Iran's trust, which will lead to serious damage to its international prestige... [Iran] cannot select Russia as a reliable strategic partner for cooperation." [24]

Parliamentary Energy Committee Member Hossein Nejabat: Give the Russians an Ultimatum

Parliamentary Energy Committee member Hossein Nejabat told Kayhan that "the Russians must be given an ultimatum, and if they do not activate [the reactor] within the [specified] time, Iran will do the work, because 90% of the reactor is already built, and [Iran] will complain against Russia in the international forums... Behind the scenes, the Russians are cooperating with the Americans... and are making decisions under American influence and pressure.[25]

The Crisis Over the Russian Proposal for an American-Russian Radar Station in Qabala

The other focus of tension between Iran and Russia is the crisis over the Qabala radar station program. Under the compromise proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-8 summit in Germany in early June 2007, the U.S. will not deploy missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic for defense against Iran's ballistic missiles. Instead, it will use, together with Russia, the missile defense radar station located in Qabala, Azerbaijan. [26]Putin's proposal brought a harsh reaction from Iran, expressed in statements by numerous representatives of the Iranian regime.

Iranian Officials Respond

Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy member Heshmatollah Falahat-Pisheh told Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is affiliated with the Qom religious seminaries: "Russia never was a strategic friend of Iran... In the past, it tried to sacrifice countries like Iran for its schemes and in order to achieve higher-level relations with America. [Regime] officials in Iran know this, and [therefore] Iran's strategy vis-à-vis Russia should be formulated in the same way." [27]

Falahat-Pisheh also said, "[Our] experience shows that the Russians were not, and still are not, credible in any of their stands... Considering that Iran's main motto is 'No to the East and No to the West,' we must protect our national interests, in a precise and clear way."[28]

Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy member Ali Ahmadi said to the ISNA news agency on June 16, 2007: "If we look at the history of Iran-Russia [relations], we will see that Russia's violent conduct [towards Iran] has been immeasurably worse [than the West's]. Examples of this are the [1813] Treaty of Gulistan and the [1828] Treaty of Turkmenchay,[29] and the conquest of northern Iran during World War II... Iran's past relations with Russia show that peace has not always prevailed between them. More important, the Russians do not want in their vicinity any country like Iran with nuclear technology."[30]

In addition, several MPs asked Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to submit an official protest to Russia regarding Putin's proposal.[31]

Iranian Press Reactions

Aftab-e Yazd: "Nothing Better Can Be Expected from Former KGB Spies"

A June 10, 2007 editorial in the reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd claimed that "nothing better can be expected from the former KGB spies [i.e. Putin]... Therefore, Iran had better regard Russia as a party to the negotiations rather than as a strong and committed ally, and take extra care not to let its interest fall prey to Russia's pursuit of profits.[32]

Jomhouri-ye Eslami: Putin's Proposal Will Endanger Geo-strategic Stability

In a June 10, 2007 editorial, the Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami argued that Putin's proposal was actually an invitation to the U.S. to spy on Iran on its very border, and that it undermines geo-strategic stability in a way that endangers Russia itself. It also stated that Russia was acting hostilely towards Iran, and continuing to turn its back on it – as it had done in the past, when it supplied Iraq with weapons in its war against Iran. Following are the main points of the editorial:

"...At the G-8 summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted a proposal to Washington that revealed his position of complete hostility to Iran, which cannot be tolerated under any circumstances...

"We strongly recommend to Putin that he carefully study the history... of Iran in the past 50 years... Thanks to the Islamic Revolution, the U.S. anti-Russian spy bases that operated in Iran [during the Shah's time] have been removed. Iran never demanded [anything in exchange] for destroying the American spy bases; but [instead,] for eight years [that is, during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war], the Kremlin provided means of warfare, modern weapons, and the most advanced weaponry of various kinds to the aggressor enemy [i.e. Iraq], which was making Iran the target of its savage attacks...

"After the U.S.S.R. fell apart, Iran tried to turn over a new leaf with Russia, and to establish friendly relations with it, while forgetting the bitter past of its relations with it...

"Putin's hostile and ill-considered proposal will make serious and irreversible changes in the regional and even the global geo-strategic reality, the ill-boding ramifications and results of which will also frighten Moscow and its other allies...

"How can Moscow justify this proposal, which will turn out to be a failure? How is it possible to trust the messages [regarding] Moscow's good will, and to see [these messages] as honest and responsible, while we can see that Moscow is now officially and publicly inviting our vengeance-consumed enemies [i.e. America] to position their espionage operations against Iran just beyond its borders? Really, how should this proposal be perceived, when Moscow is speaking out forcefully against America's hostile goals and plans to position a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, and is officially declaring that it [i.e. Moscow] will aim its missiles at Europe and at other American military targets, but at the same time is proposing to those same rivals [to conduct] joint espionage operations just beyond Iran's borders?...

"This proposal should be perceived as a hostile measure against Iran. The Kremlin should be reminded, in honesty, that Russia is unfortunately still untrustworthy, and that it is continuing with its hostility towards Iran while pretending friendship. Therein, there is also a possibility that what is being said [by Putin] is only a small part of a greater plan, the goals and details of which have not yet been, and will perhaps never be, revealed. It is very humiliating and shameful for Moscow and for the Kremlin leadership that a green light has been given to the American spies..."[33]

Resalat: Putin's Proposal is Another Strategic Mistake by Russia

In a July 2, 2007 editorial, the conservative daily Resalat noted that Putin's proposal to cooperate with the U.S. in operating the radar station in Qabala was a strategic mistake on Russia's part:

"...It seems that Russia's strategic mistakes in the international arena are endless... The mistake of proposing the plan for cooperation between the U.S. and Moscow in [operating] the Qabala radar station in Azerbaijan shows that the prevailing thought in Russia is one of blocking and preventing [any harm to Russian interests]. This kind of thinking is causing the Russians to act unnaturally and to be overly cautious in issues connected to the international arena...[34]

Tehran Times: Russia Is Sacrificing Iran in Order to Achieve Its Own Interests

In his June 13 column in the daily Tehran Times, which is affiliated with the Iranian Foreign Ministry, columnist Hossein Amiri wrote that Russia was sacrificing Iran so as to achieve its own interests vis-à-vis the U.S., and that in so doing, it was breaking its alliance with Iran, without any pangs of conscience. In the column, he also stressed the potential threat posed to Iran by the Qabala radar station, which can identify and intercept any ballistic missile fired from the area stretching from the Middle East to the Indian Ocean:

"…The Qabala radar station is a giant anti-missile radar system built by the Soviet Union in the Qabala region of Azerbaijan in 1985. The radar station has a range of up to 6,000 kilometers, and was designed to detect missile launches originating as far away as the Indian Ocean. The radar's surveillance covers Iran, Turkey, India, and the entire Middle East. It allows not only detection of the launch of a missile but also tracking of its entire trajectory, enabling an anti-missile system to intercept an offensive strike…

"One might ask if Russia has adopted this tactic with the intention of sacrificing Iran for its own interests. Even if the U.S. rejects the Russian proposal, Tehran will view the whole affair as an attempt to use Iran…

"However, by allowing the deployment of U.S. forces so near to the Iranian border, would Russia not be breaking its alliance with Iran? And doesn't this make it clear that Russia has no qualms about using Iran to neutralize the threats of the United States?"[35]

*Y. Mansharof is a Research Fellow at MEMRI.


[1] ISNA, July 6, 2007.

[2] For more on the roots of the Iran-Russia crisis, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 338, " Russia's New Position on Iran's Nuclear Program Creates Iran-Russia Crisis," March 30, 2007, Dean of Shari'a and Law at Qatar University in Support of the U.S., the War on Terror, and Curricular Reform Part II .

[3] Aftab (Iran), July 1, 2007. On July 10, 2007, a Russian nuclear expert stated that "it will take Iran five to 10 years to create a [nuclear] bomb." Iran Daily (Iran), July 10, 2007.

[4] Aftab (Iran), May 29, 2007.

[5] Aftab (Iran), April 25, 2007; Sobh-e Sadeq (Iran), May 30, 2007.

[6] Aftab (Iran), June 20, 2007.

[7] Kayhan (Iran), May 17, 2007. On July 4, 2007, the Aftab website cited a report from the Russian media according to which Russian Nuclear Energy Organization deputy head Anatoly Kotlienkov had said that Russia would insist that nuclear fuel supplied to Iran is returned to Russia [after it use]. Baztab, April 4, 2007.

[8] Baztab (Iran), June 5, 2007. In addition, an unnamed senior Russian Nuclear Energy Organization source was quoted as saying that "recently, the Bushehr project is no longer considered by Russia to be profitable" and that Iran was not meeting its monetary obligations for the Bushehr reactor project. Aftab (Iran), May 26, 2007. Iran vehemently denies these accusations, as noted by Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy rapporteur Kazem Jalali, ISNA, July 6, 2007. For Iran's denials, see also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 338, " Russia's New Position on Iran's Nuclear Program Creates Iran-Russia Crisis," March 30, 2007, Dean of Shari'a and Law at Qatar University in Support of the U.S., the War on Terror, and Curricular Reform Part II . Another senior source in the Russian Nuclear Energy Organization noted that, since all legal preparations had been completed and all required technical permits for transferring the nuclear fuel to Iran had been obtained, there was nothing to prevent the continuation of activity at Bushehr except the approval of the Russian government. Baztab, June 5, 2007.

[9] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), July 3, 2007. On June 19, 2007, Aftab cited Russian media reports that Russia was unwilling to negotiate with Iran over the transfer of nuclear fuel or over a date for the completion of the Bushehr reactor. Aftab, June 19, 2007.

[10] Fars (Iran), July 7, 2007; Mehr (Iran), July 7, 2007.

[11] Aftab (Iran), July 4, 2007.

[12] IRNA (Iran), April 11, 2007.

[13] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), July 2, 2007.

[14] Kayhan (Iran), July 5, 2007.

[15] ISNA (Iran), July 6, 2007.

[16] Mehr (Iran), July 3, 2007.

[17] ISNA (Iran), July 4, 2007.

[18] ISNA (Iran), July 4, 2007.

[19] Kayhan (Iran), July 8, 2007.

[20] Aftab (Iran), July 4, 2007.

[21] Kayhan (Iran), July 8, 2007.

[22] Mehr (Iran), July 3, 2007.

[23] Mehr (Iran), July 3, 2007.

[24] Kayhan (Iran), July 8, 2007.

[25]Kayhan (Iran), July 8, 2007.

[26] According to Iranian media reports, Putin stated during his recent visit to the U.S. that the joint operation of the Qabala radar station was contingent upon America's retraction of its plan to position missile batteries in Eastern Europe. Aftab (Iran), July 3, 2007. On June 10, 2007, Aftab reported that the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, had welcomed Putin's proposal.

[27] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), June 10, 2007.

[28] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), June 10, 2007.

[29] This refers to agreements through which Russia took control of the Caucasus, which was until then under Iranian rule.

[30] ISNA (Iran), June 16, 2007.

[31] Mehr (Iran), June 10, 2007.

[32] Aftab-e Yazd (Iran), June 10, 2007.

[33] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), June 10, 2007.

[34] Resalat (Iran), July 2, 2007.

[35] Tehran Times (Iran), June 13, 2007.

Share this Report: