Analysis & Opinions - International Herald Tribune

Iran's Nuclear Program: The Russians May Be Ready To Help

| June 12, 2003

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts Iran's nuclear energy program will be at the top of the agenda when the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors meets in Vienna next week. This time, Russia may be more inclined to cooperate with efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

For more than a decade, Washington has unsuccessfully worked to sway Moscow from its cooperation with Iran in areas that can help Tehran develop weapons of mass destruction. Recent revelations by Iranian leaders and officials, however, are prompting the Russians to reassess their cooperation with Iran.

President Mohammed Khatami of Iran recently disclosed that Iran has been mining uranium and pursuing technologies to reprocess the spent nuclear fuel from its reactor in Bushehr. "We need to complete the circle from discovering uranium to managing remaining spent fuel," he said.

Iran has also declared that the spent fuel, which can be used to make nuclear weapons, may not be returned to Russia. Tehran further confirmed the existence of an uranium enrichment facility and plutonium production plant, making fuel supply from Russia eventually unnecessary. The announcements suggest that Tehran is coming close to being able to make nuclear weapons, with or without outside help. These disclosures contradict Iranian commitments to Russia, as well as commitments made by Moscow to Washington.

A decision by Tehran actually to construct nuclear weapons, however, would be influenced by several strategic considerations. The prospect of losing Russia's support at the International Atomic Energy Agency and other international organizations, for example, could still have a major impact on Iran's next moves. There are also hundreds of Russian scientists and engineers in Iran whose withdrawal could seriously hamper the civil nuclear program — and who are in a position to know what equipment or technology Iran still lacks.

Recent statements by President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the head of Russia's Ministry of Atomic Energy, Alexander Rumyantsev, indicate that Moscow is starting to view Iran's nuclear program with concern. "While Russia is helping Iran to build its nuclear power plant, it is not being informed by Iran of all the other projects that are currently under way," Rumyantsev said.

Now Moscow is urging Tehran to sign the additional inspections protocol advocated by the IAEA, and it recently announced a decision to delay the signing of an agreement with Iran on spent nuclear fuel. Several articles in the Iranian press also suggest that Russia is beginning to give Iranian officials the cold shoulder on nuclear cooperation.

All this indicates that Russia is re-examining its nuclear cooperation with Iran. It may be ready now, instead, to cooperate with Washington.

Departing from previous lines of disagreement with the Putin announced following the summit meeting in St. Petersburg, that "The positions of Russia and the US on the issue are much closer than they seem." Putin has also taken a number of steps as president to take control of the various foreign policy and national security apparatuses that had a free reign in a number of fields during the Yeltsin era. Most important, Putin sacked Yevgeni Adamov in 2001 as head of the Russian Ministry of Atomic Energy and replaced him with own appointment. In his dealings with the United States, Putin bargains hard, but has generally shown that he know how to implement the agreements he makes.

In order to succeed, the United States should work quietly with Putin and not give the impression that it is pressuring Moscow. Beyond demanding that Tehran sign the IAEA inspections protocol, Moscow must insist that Iran return the spent reactor fuel to Russia in accordance with its previous commitment. Russia should also join international efforts to demand that Iran halt its uranium enrichment and plutonium production programs, which are clearly beyond the requirements of a civil nuclear program, and condition further cooperation on this. Finally, Russia should encourage its scientists and engineers in Iran to provide information on their projects.

Iran is at a critical juncture in its nuclear program, and the loss of Russian backing will influence its next steps as well as the actions of European states in international forums. We need Russia at this crucial stage.

The writer is research director of the Caspian Studies Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Copyright © 2003 The International Herald Tribune

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For Academic Citation: Shaffer, Brenda.“Iran's Nuclear Program: The Russians May Be Ready To Help.” International Herald Tribune, June 12, 2003.

The Author

Brenda Shaffer