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#18 - JRL 2006-16 - JRL Home
Russia: Is Moscow Changing Course On Iran?
By Robert Parsons
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

Russia, after months of dismissing a possible UN Security Council referral for Iran, has begun to signal a change of course. President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on 16 January that there was little dividing Russia from the European Union and the United States on the issue of Iran's decision to resume uranium enrichment activities. But how far is Moscow prepared to go? Does it still believe there is mileage in the Russian proposal to enrich uranium on Russian soil for Iranian use?

Prague, 17 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- International patience with Iran is fast running out -- and not just in the capitals of Europe and the United States. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on 16 January after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that the issue had featured prominently in their talks: "Now, as for Iran...we spoke today a lot about his problem. Russia, the Federal Republic [of Germany] and our European partners and the United States have a very close position on the Iranian problem."

Quite how close at this point is not clear, although the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov indicated at the weekend that Russia had not ruled out referring Iran to the UN Security Council.

Diplomatic Solution Possible

Putin appeared to stand by that after his talks with Merkel, but he also made clear that in Russia's view there is still room for a diplomatic solution. "We proposed to our Iranian partners setting up a joint [uranium] enrichment venture on Russian territory," Putin said. "We have heard various opinions from our Iranian partners on that issue. One such opinion has recently come from the [Iranian] Foreign Ministry: our partners told us they did not exclude the implementation of our proposal. In any case, it's necessary to work carefully on the Iranian nuclear issue and avoid any sharp, erroneous moves."

The emphasis in Moscow then is on caution -- a point apparently underscored at a high-level meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council in London on 16 January. Speaking on condition of anonymity, British Foreign Office officials told "The New York Times" daily that Russia and China were both against referring Iran to the Security Council -- at least at this stage.

Despite that, Foreign Minister Lavrov said today in Moscow that Russia would not block a call by Britain, France, and Germany to convene a special session of the 35 countries that make up the decision-making board of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"Various options were discussed including the proposal of the EU-3 to call an emergency meeting of the IAEA board of governors on 2-3 February this year," Lavrov said. "Russia will be ready for such a meeting. We have some ideas about what such a meeting could achieve."

UN Referral

Russia would clearly like more time -- but by signing on to the idea of a special session of the IAEA, the prospect of a referral to the Security Council in New York becomes much more likely. The session would be expected to vote on the issue.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London and a specialist on nonproliferation, said Russia will not try to block Security Council referral:"In fact [Russia] can't block it because the board of the IAEA votes by majority. It doesn't require consensus. However, to send the strongest signal to Tehran it would be very helpful for Russia and China and all the other members to show unanimity with whatever strategy is decided upon -- and it looks like there's not yet unanimity."

As Putin says, the position of Russia is very close to that of the European Union and the United States -- but by no means identical. Russia needs good relations with Iran: Moscow no longer shares a border with Iran but it still lies very close to its long southern flank. And then there's the matter of business: for all its reservations about Iran's nuclear ambitions, Russia has a $1 billion stake in the construction of Iran's first atomic reactor at Bushehr.