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March 29, 2007 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 338

Russia's New Position on Iran's Nuclear Program Creates Iran-Russia Crisis

March 29, 2007 | By Yossi Mansharof
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 338

Introduction

For many months, Russia has been blocking efforts by the international community to stop Iran's nuclear program, and has been acting to temper the U.N. Security Council sanctions enacted against Iran in December 2006. At the same time, for the past few years Russia has been building the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and during U.N. Security Council discussions it has insisted that sanctions resolution No. 1737 not include the reactor.

In the past three weeks, a crisis has developed in Iran-Russia relations, following an essential change in Russia's position on the Iranian nuclear issue. At the height of the crisis, it was even reported in Iran – quoting Russian sources – that some of the Russian experts working on the Bushehr reactor had departed Iran, at Moscow's orders, on a special flight, without even notifying Iran.[1]

At first, Russia explained its new stance by stating that the timetable for the reactor's construction had changed due to Iran's arrears in the agreed payments. Iran rejected this explanation out of hand, and Iran's Foreign Minister Menouchehr Mottaki and Iran's Atomic Energy Organization director Gholam Reza Aghazadeh stated that Iran had even made payments earlier than agreed.[2] The organization also published, on March 13, 2007, an official announcement stating that up until March 1, 2007, Iran had paid the Russian contractor as required, and that it had the bank documents to prove it.[3] An Iranian delegation to Moscow headed by Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Deputy Director Mohammad Saeedi, whose mission was to bridge the gaps, returned empty-handed.

Then, Russia began to explain that its delay was based on more fundamental reasons, connected to the nature of Iran's nuclear program. Russian National Security Council Chairman Igor Ivanov stated that "a nuclear Iran is considered a direct and indirect threat to Russia's interest... Russia will do everything [necessary] to ensure that this [threat] will not come about... For 18 years, Iran has conducted its nuclear activity far from the inspection of the International Atomic Energy Agency..."[4] The London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat quoted a reliable Russian source as saying that "Iran is exploiting its relations with us, and has not helped us at all with convincing our partners [in the West that they have nothing to fear from] Tehran's nuclear activity." The paper also quoted a Russian source close to the Kremlin as saying: "A nuclear Iran, or one that has the potential to become [nuclear], is something that is unacceptable to us... We will never play the game of hostility towards the U.S. with Iran... If Iran does not answer the IAEA's questions, it must bear the consequences for its actions."[5] Also, the Iranian media cited Western media reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided that Russia would not give Iran (the know-how required for a) nuclear fuel cycle as long as Iran refused to agree to freeze its uranium enrichment.[6]

The Iranian Reactions

Iran has reacted sharply to Russia's new position, with its reactions divided into two main aspects. Concerning its relations with Russia, Iran emphasized the negative ramifications of Russia's new position on Iran-Russia relations. Regarding its nuclear program, Iran stressed its determination to continue, even without Russia's support.

A. Iran-Russia Relations

Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, who is in charge of Iran's nuclear dossier, said: "Any delay in activating the Bushehr reactor will damage Russia's commercial future..."[7] In addition, the Iranian papers expressed their disappointment in Russia's shift, stating that Russia was an "unreliable partner"[8] and that "Moscow is wavering in its support to the Iranian nuclear project, in accordance with Western pressure."[9] It was also stated that Russia's conduct was endangering its future economic relations not only with Iran, but with the other Muslim countries as well. Thus, for example, a March 18, 2007 article released by IRNA stated: "...Iran at no point had full confidence regarding [the implementation of] its agreements with Moscow... The events connected to the activation of the Bushehr reactor, and Moscow's immorality with regard to fulfilling its obligations to provide nuclear fuel to the reactor, have again shown the Russians' unreliability as a commercial-economic partner in the [Persian Gulf] region and in the [entire] world." The article also stated that pessimism regarding the Russians was not being felt only by Iran, because "Russia's most fundamental allies, in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and even in Europe, have never been able to be certain about the continuation of political, economic, and even cultural ties with Moscow." As examples of Russia's conduct in its ties with its Caucasian and European neighbors, the article mentioned the halt in the supply of gas to the Ukraine, Russia's opposition to Georgia's independent national policy, and its open and covert opposition to some of the Central Asian governments.[10]

Iranian MP Kazem Jalali, who is also rapporteur for Iran's Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy, said, "As far as Iran is concerned, these delays are unacceptable... The agreement [for the activation of the Bushehr reactor] has been extended several times, and Iran has announced to Russia a number of times that the Bushehr nuclear reactor is considered a symbol of Iran-Russia cooperation. [Thus] it is natural that there are serious doubts in Iranian public opinion, and even among some senior [regime] officials, regarding the Iran-Russia cooperation... Any negligence or delay in the construction and transfer of the Bushehr reactor is likely to reinforce [the elements in the Iranian regime] who are not interested in expanding relations with Russia, and even now some senior [regime] officials believe that Russia is not trustworthy, and believe that it is discarding cooperation [with Iran] and delaying [the completion of the reactor] in accordance with the pressure from some of the superpowers... If more time is required to complete the reactor, why are they suspending the transfer of nuclear fuel, while this [transfer] is sanctioned by the agreement, and can be carried out by Russia and its administration...?"[11]

Jomhouri-ye Eslami: Moscow is Not a Reliable Partner for Our Nuclear Activity

A March 12, 2007 editorial in the conservative Iranian daily Jomhouri-ye Eslami, which is affiliated with the religious seminaries in the city of Qom, stated: "In light of Russia's search for pretexts [to delay the nuclear project], the fate of the Iran-Russia agreements on the timetable for the completion and activation of the nuclear reactor at Bushehr is enveloped in mist. Previously, it was agreed that the Russian side would, during the last days [of the Persian year, which ends March 21], transfer to Iran the nuclear fuel cycle required for activating the nuclear reactor, and that during the coming months the nuclear reactor's activation would be completed. The Russian side claims that the agreed-upon sums have not yet been paid to the Russian contractor. But the reality is different. Although Iran has fulfilled its financial obligations, the Russian side repeatedly searches for excuses, and claims that because Iran changed its method of payment from dollars to euros, the sides must sign a new agreement. This involves yet more wasted time, and is, in fact, an opportunity for Russia to stall.

"Although 97% of the work to complete the Bushehr reactor has already been carried out, if the Russian side does not meet its obligation and provide the nuclear fuel cycle, it will not, in practical terms, be possible to activate the reactor...

"The evidence and the signs show that Moscow, with its ambivalent behavior, is in fact adapting itself to the 5+1, while pretending that it is [continuing] with the construction and activation of the Bushehr reactor – thus ostensibly not violating its commitments...

"The talks in Russia shed light on the whole matter. With its demand for additional payment, and even earlier than the agreed date, the Russians have shown that not only is it pursuing certain political goals, but that it also intends to exploit the situation monetarily, and to guarantee its getting more than the set price...

"[Russia's conduct] again shows that Moscow's positions on these matters are gradually weakening, and are not very reliable – especially as the date for activating the Bushehr nuclear reactor approaches. When the agreement was signed, Moscow claimed that it would not be influenced by any pressure, and that it would act resolutely to fulfill its obligations. But on the practical level, we are not seeing Moscow's unhesitating and unconditional execution of its obligations. This shows that Moscow is not a reliable partner to our nuclear activity.

"Moscow's recent behavior regarding the Bushehr nuclear reactor evokes a special meaning in [people's] consciousness – this can be called, diplomatically, 'demanding a bribe.' Such behavior is unworthy of a partner who pretends to [provide] multilateral cooperation, and is a warning for us that, at least from this moment onwards, we will take this issue into account [when] making new agreements with Moscow, and we will know that... even when agreements are signed with Russia, it does not mean that Moscow will meet its commitments until the end of the work...

"This is not the first time that we are encountering a search for excuses by Russia in the context of the Bushehr nuclear reactor agreement. Russia's insistence that the spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr be returned to it was a demand explicitly counter to the initial agreement, but in light of the special conditions in Iran's nuclear dossier, they persisted in exploiting the opportunity to impose this illegal demand.

"Now, Moscow is again seeking, in addition to material profits [from Iran], to gain credit from the U.S. and Europe as well. But whatever this credit may be, it will without a doubt be worthless when the world understands that the Russians are unreliable, and also demand bribes when the occasion arises."[12]

B. The Continuation of Iran's Nuclear Program

Despite the change in Russia's position, senior Iranian regime officials have repeatedly emphasized their determination to continue with their nuclear program. In the main address marking the Persian New Year, on March 21, 2007, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stressed that the sanctions would not pose an obstacle to Iran's developing nuclear technology, and said, "The sanctions cannot hurt us. Haven't they placed sanctions on us already? [Even] with sanctions in place, we have attained nuclear energy."[13] Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, following the March 24 passage of the new sanctions resolution, UNSC Resolution No. 1747, that "the peaceful and legal nuclear process of the Iranian people will not be stopped and will not be in doubt for even a second, despite the illegal Security Council sanctions."[14] Previously, Ahmadinejad had said, "The path that the Iranian people has set for itself is a path of no return... The Iranian people will not stop until it attains the final peak..."[15] Ahmadinejad also said, in a speech during a visit to Yazd province, that "the Iranian people will continue in its path to attain nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and will not back down one iota [from its aspiration]."[16]

Deputy Director of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization: Iran Can Rely on Itself

Iranian Atomic Energy Organization Deputy Director Mohammad Saeedi revealed that Iran already possessed the necessary know-how for a nuclear fuel cycle and for constructing nuclear reactors, and even said that Iran had already begun to carry out this plan.[17] At the same time, organization head Gholam Reza Aghazadeh announced that Iran had, on orders from President Ahmadinejad, begun construction of the country's first 360-megawatt nuclear facility.[18]

In addition, a March 15, 2003 article in the conservative Iranian daily Resalat analyzed statements by Larijani that the fact that Russia is delaying the transfer of the [required] nuclear fuel cycle to the Bushehr reactor shows that there is no guarantee that [Iran] can obtain a nuclear fuel cycle from other countries.[19] Resalat criticized the ambivalence of Russia's policy, and stated that in light of this policy, Iran had to complete the nuclear fuel cycle on its own: "The unreliability of the Russians shows that... there is no way to complete the nuclear fuel cycle except with Iranian scientists... Five months ago, Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Aghazadeh, and after that, his deputy Saeedi, noted that the Bushehr reactor could be finished even without the Russians...

"There is no doubt that, at a time of Western pressure on Iran regarding its nuclear dossier, the Russians are thinking, on the one hand, about raising the ceiling of the benefits [they receive] from Tehran, and on the other hand, thinking about what kind of cooperation with the West [they have to maintain] in order to avoid paying a price for its relations with Iran. [Accordingly], in the face of the Russians' insincere behavior, Tehran must think about how to extricate itself [from its dependence on Russian help]."[20]

A Call for Obtaining Nuclear Weapons

Following the U.N. Security Council's passage of increased sanctions on Iran, on March 24, the Iranian website Alef, which is affiliated with conservative MP Ahmad Tavakkoli, the director of the Majlis Strategic Research Center, posted an article analyzing the ramifications of the new sanctions. The article stated that because Iran was already paying the price for developing nuclear weapons, it should now go ahead and obtain them:

"...If the West increases the pressure [on Iran] in this way [i.e. via sanctions], and the effects of these pressures on Iran's internal [situation] is felt, many in Iran will surely ask: Now, since we are paying the price for having nuclear weapons, why shouldn't we [really] have them, and benefit from them?"[21]

Tehran Times: Russia's Wavering in Its Support for Its Allies Might Lead Tehran to Reconsider Its Policies and Lean Towards the West

In a March 15, 2007 article in the English-language daily Tehran Times, which is affiliated with Iran's Foreign Ministry, columnist Hassan Hanizadeh argued that Moscow's wavering in its support for Iran could destroy its image in the Islamic world and increase regional tension. It added that so far, Iran had been the link connecting Russia to the Islamic world, and that the current Bushehr crisis could have serious consequences for Russia's status in the Islamic world. The article even threatened Moscow that Tehran might reconsider its policies and lean towards the West. Following are highlights from the article:

"…The Bushehr nuclear power plant has been seen as the symbol of political, economic, and technical cooperation between Tehran and Moscow over the past two decades, and the two countries also significantly boosted their diplomatic relations through cooperation on the station. Russia played a key role in supporting Iran in the recent negotiations over Tehran's nuclear program and adopted positive stances toward the Islamic Republic.

"But the Russian contractor's failure to fulfill its commitments shows that Moscow is wavering in its support of allies, which could sully its reputation in the Islamic world.

"Although Russia handed the world to the United States on a silver platter after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the new Kremlin leaders are expected to at least maintain a part of their political clout in the face of U.S. efforts to create a unipolar world system. As a nuclear power, Russia can continue its previous role of maintaining the international balance of power.

"Any move that would allow the U.S. to exploit Russia's weakness could lead to a rise in regional tensions. On the other hand, Russia, as an ally of the Islamic countries and Non-Aligned Movement members, should not be swayed by Western policies or tie its national interests to U.S. foreign policy.

"Over the past two decades, Islamic nations have been closely observing Iranian-Russian political and economic relations to see whether Russia can regain its former superpower status and create a new bloc to challenge the hegemonic powers. In addition, Iran, which can act as a link between Russia and Muslim countries, has realized that Moscow does not have a strategic view toward its relations with the Islamic world.

"If Russia decides to shirk its commitments in regard to the Bushehr station, Iran will have to reconsider its major policies and lean toward the West by softening some of its positions…

"Russia currently has a very important place in Iran's foreign policy, and the previous cooperation has proven Iran's goodwill toward Russia.

"However, if the Bushehr plant issue becomes a point of contention in Tehran-Moscow relations, there could be serious repercussions for Moscow in the Islamic world."[22]

*Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[1] Rooz, Hayat-e No (Iran), March 15, 2007. Russia has denied this, IRNA, March 29, 2007.

[2] IRNA (Iran), March 11, 2007; Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), March 14, 2007.

[3] Jomhouri-ye Eslami, Iran, March 14, 2007. Likewise, Parliamentary Committee for National Security and Foreign Policy member Reza Talai Nik noted, "There is no justification for delaying [the transfer of the nuclear fuel cycle and the completion of the Bushehr reactor] because Iran has met its financial obligations in full." Mehr news agency, March 12, 2007.

[4] Baztab, March 18, 2007. Ivanov added that "if, as senior Iranian officials are claiming, no kind of military program is on Iran's nuclear agenda, and the aims [of Iran's nuclear program] are strictly for peaceful purposes, there should be no concern [on Iran's part] regarding a temporary freeze [on uranium enrichment]." Aftab, March 20, 2007.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 13, 2007.

[6] Baztab, March 12, 2007, March 13, 2007. It should be noted that Russia has not supported Iran's demands to enrich uranium in the past either. Instead, Russia suggested that it construct a central enrichment facility for use by several countries, including Iran, who need nuclear fuel. Iran rejected this suggestion.

[7] He also said: "Russia has never demanded that we freeze [uranium] enrichment in exchange for the completion of the Bushehr reactor..." Mehr news agency (Iran), March 14, 2007.

[8] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), March 12, 2007; Etemad-e Meli (Iran), March 12, 2007; Resalat (Iran), March 15, 2007.

[9] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), March 12, 2007; Tehran Times (Iran), March 15, 2007.

[10] IRNA (Iran), March 18, 2007.

[11] ILNA news agency (Iran), March 12, 2007.

[12] Jomhouri-ye Eslami (Iran), March 14, 2007. Another article, published on March 12 in the Iranian daily Etemad-e Meli, which is affiliated with the reformist party of the same name led by Mehdi Karroubi, noted that Russia had never been a reliable friend or a worthy partner to Iran. The article included a warning that Iran could put the Russian market's margin of security at risk if it uses its influence and explains to the world that Russia is unreliable. The article concluded by saying that such action by Iran would cause damage to the Russian economy that was many times greater than the profits Russia would receive from its "immoral games with America." Etemad-e Meli (Iran), March 12, 2007.

[13] ISNA news agency, March 22, 2007. For Khamenei's speech, see MEMRI TV Clip No. 1409, March 21, 2007, http://www.memritv.org/search.asp?ACT=S9&P1=1409

[14] ISNA news agency, March 26, 2007.

[15] Mehr, March 15, 2007.

[16] IRNA, March 14, 2007. Larijani emphasized in an interview with the Qatari daily Al-Sharq, "We are willing to bear the consequences of all the sanctions; we will not submit to the threats being made against us by means of pressure and force. The more the [sanctions] resolutions increase, the more steadfast against them we will become." Al-Sharq (Qatar), March 14, 2007. During Friday prayers at Tehran's central mosque, Ayatollah Emami-Kashani said, "Even if the Western countries issue another ten sanctions resolutions, they will not harm Iran." Jomhouri-ye Eslami, Iran, March 17, 2007.

[17] See MEMRI TV Clip No. 1404, March 13, 2007, http://www.memritv.org/search.asp?ACT=S9&P1=1404

[18] ISNA, March 6, 2007.

[19] Tehran Times (Iran), March 14, 2007.

[20] Resalat (Iran), March 15, 2007.

[21] Alef (Iran), March 25, 2007. It should be noted that in August 2006, Majlis Deputy Chairman Mohammad Reza Bahonar said that there was a possibility that the Iranian people would ask its government to develop nuclear weapons. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 1271, "Iranian Statements on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Arak Heavy Water Plant," August 30, 2006, http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP127106#_ednref5 .

[22] Tehran Times (Iran), March 15, 2007.

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