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Russia Profile
March 3, 2006
Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Has Russia defused the Iran crisis?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov
Contributors: Jim Jatras, Andrei Zagorski, Yury Fedorov, Andrey Lebedev, Shaun Walker

The IAEA Board of Governors will decide on March 6 whether formally to refer Iran to the UN Security Council for violating its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty. It seemed that the long-running political drama over Iran's nuclear program was heading for an explosive conclusion, but Russia appears to have negotiated a last-minute diplomatic breakthrough that has the potential to defuse the crisis.

Earlier in February, the IAEA Board of Governors expressed its growing concern and frustration over Iran's lack of cooperation and its continued push for experimenting with sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technologies. The Board reported Iran to the UN Security Council, but stopped short of formal referral and, upon Russia's request, agreed to give additional time for Moscow's last-ditch diplomatic effort to succeed.

Russian and Iranian officials have long been engaged in tough talks over a proposal to enrich uranium for nuclear fuel through a joint venture on Russian territory - a proposal supported by the EU troika of France, Germany and the United Kingdom and, surprisingly, the United States. If implemented properly, the proposal would allow Iran to develop its nuclear energy industry and ensure its fuel supply without creating an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle, thus avoiding a major international crisis with clear military implications.

Until recently, it appeared that this last remaining negotiating track was heading nowhere. Iran balked at the idea that the entire enrichment process should be kept on Russian territory with no enrichment technology transferred to Iran, thus raising doubts that ensuring an independent supply of nuclear fuel was Tehran's only objective. Although, under the circumstances, the Russian proposal was probably the best offer Iran could possibly get from the international community, Tehran insisted that at least part of the enrichment process should take place in Iran and, additionally, that Russia should not be the only foreign partner in the joint venture. Several rounds of Russian-Iranian talks over this project have failed to produce a compromise.

Over the weekend, a high-level Russian negotiating team, headed by new Rosatom chief Sergei Kiriyenko, was in Tehran to discuss the Russian offer. After tense negotiations, an agreement on the issue was announced in Bushehr, where Russia is building a controversial nuclear power plant. Details of the agreement are to be worked out by experts at a series of meetings next week in Moscow.

Many experts believed that the Russian proposal was the best shot for a peaceful solution to the looming crisis over Iran's nuclear program. But will it be enough to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capability? Or is it just another way to buy time and delay, but not prevent, the emergence of a nuclear armed Iran? How will the Russian deal affect the debate at next week's meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors? If Russia was really able to diffuse a very dangerous crisis over Iran by its deft diplomacy, how will it affect Russia's position as a responsible international player, and, particularly, Russia's G8 Presidency?

Jim Jatras, Partner, Venable LLP, Washington DC:

The short answer is No. While the Russian initiative is a reasonable effort to defuse the building confrontation between Iran and (primarily) the United States, I believe it will fail to avert the crisis. That failure is not so much a reflection on the Russian initiative as on the irreconcilable agendas in Washington and Tehran.

There can be no doubt that America's bipartisan policy consensus is dedicated to regime change in Tehran in the very near future. This imperative reflects both Washington's stated concerns about the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons and its commitment to radical "democratic" transformation of the Greater Middle East, in line with President Bush's major policy speeches in recent months. While, in view of Iraq, the practicalities of the military options on Iran may seem problematic (to put it mildly), the question of how Washington will move forward is not one of whether, but of when and how. Lukewarm American support for the Russian initiative is a well-directed move to show that all peaceful means were exhausted by the time military action is taken, at least to neutralize the intensity of potential resistance in Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing.

Iran, while pursuing discussions with Moscow about enriching uranium on Russian territory, ultimately will not lock itself into an arrangement that would limit its ability to develop nuclear weapons capability. Regardless of the politics of the ayatollahs' regime, nuclear weapons are a rational response to the "lessons" of Iraq and North Korea. Simply put, if an "Axis of Evil" state has no nuclear weapons, it gets regime change. If it does, it gets respectful treatment and an offer from Washington to engage.

Europe and China will remain jittery spectators, hoping that the Russian initiative will succeed while weighing their options upon its likely failure. Beijing will remain close to Moscow's position. The Europeans will not actively participate in action against Iran, but their criticism of Washington will be far milder than was the case with Iraq. Military action against Iran, either by American forces or by Israel with American concurrence, will engender no new speculation about an emerging Paris-Berlin-Moscow-Beijing axis.

Whether or not the Russian initiative averts an American-led confrontation with Iran, it is still an excellent move for Moscow. With respect to bilateral U.S.-Russia relations, it mildly mutes the ongoing hate-Russia (and hate-Putin) campaign in the United States, in which Russia's cozy relationship with Iran is Exhibit A. (America's similarly unsavory relationship with Saudi Arabia is portrayed here in an entirely different light, in part a function of Riyadh's lavish spending on Washington lobbying.) When and if the initiative fails, the Kremlin can shrug its collective shoulders and claim with justification it had tried to play a constructive role as America embarks on a course that will likely make its Iraq difficulties pale in comparison. And for those in Russia who are more concerned about American global dominance than a nuclear Iran, failure of the initiative might be a more inviting prospect than its success.

Andrei Zagorski, Associate Professor, Moscow State Institute for International Affairs (MGIMO), Moscow:

The agreement on joint uranium enrichment reached by Sergei Kiriyenko on his most recent trip to Iran is widely welcomed as a relief. Indeed, there are good reasons for this feeling, since the agreement gives all parties a bit more room for maneuver. This is important since all parties -including the United States - seem to prefer a diplomatic solution. Any coercive sanctions against Iran could turn out to be a point of no return, triggering further escalation with very unpleasant consequences.

While appreciated as a temporary relief, the Kiriyenko agreement is far from a solution to the problem. First of all, it is a general agreement pending the appropriate contract. The contract itself is not yet ensured, since the issues of particular interest to Tehran remain open for clarification. This situation has led many to believe that Iran's intention is to merely confuse its partners and buy more time before the IAEA Board of Governors meeting next week.

However, Tehran's unclear intentions are only part of the problem, since even the successful completion of negotiations on the joint venture could hardly be seen as a real solution, and could even become part of the problem.

Economically, the joint enrichment plan does not make much sense for Iran. The preceding agreement on the return of the spent fuel from Bushehr to Russia would suffice for the purposes of running the nuclear plant. Furthermore, going ahead with joint enrichment would make sense politically only on the understanding that, as a result, Iran would extend the moratorium on its own enrichment and work towards reaching an agreement giving up developing enrichment capability altogether.

An agreement fully dismantling the Iranian enrichment program would also need to be accompanied by an agreement accepting the additional protocols to the agreement with the IAEA. On all, or at least most of those points, Iran shows little readiness to compromise.

Yury Fedorov, Senior Reseacher, Chatham House, London:

Today, neither Russia, nor any other country, can stop Iran's military nuclear program by peaceful means. Iran is striving to build its own nuclear weapons at all costs. For most of rank-and-file Iranians this is to restore political justice and provide security: Their country is encircled by official and unofficial nuclear powers - India, Pakistan, Israel and Russia. And Iranians must wonder why their country is denied the right to possess nuclear weapons when their neighbors have them. Yet for the leaders of the country, nuclear weapons are the instruments by which they can achieve a long-standing Iranian dream - to rise as the real master of the Middle East and to bring to a close once and for all the issue of how to term the Gulf - Persian or Arabian. They also have learned the lesson that North Korea has taught: Whether or not a nation actually has nuclear weapons, it is better if the world believes that it does.

Today, Tehran's main objective is to gain time. Iran's leaders desperately need to prevent international sanctions, not to mention military action, and to have the time necessary to develop nuclear weapons or to move their production as close as possible to this goal. Iran's strategy includes political maneuvering and capitalizing on disagreements among the great powers, especially on disagreements between Russia and the United States. Its current stand is quite clear: Iran can agree in principle to enrich uranium for its nuclear power stations in Russia and then spend years and years in difficult discussions of all economic, technical and procedural details while developing nuclear weapons.

For the West, a nuclear-armed Iran controlling the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf is both a political and an economic nightmare. For Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran may invite fears of a new Holocaust. Yet what does it mean for Russia?

It is clearly not believable that Moscow would welcome a situation that leaves Russian cities in the South within the range of Iranian nuclear-armed missiles. Yet I suspect that many within the Russian political elite would happily have a nuclear Iran causing problems for the United States and Israel. However, Moscow also enjoys the international political respect gained from being a successful mediator between Iran and the West. But it seems that those who are in charge of Russia's policy towards Iran have forgotten the dictum of the Great Ayatollah Khomeini, who said that America was a Great Satan and the Soviet Union was a small Satan. It means that any deal with the successors of the Great Ayatollah that directly or indirectly allows Iran to proceed with its nuclear program is a very bad one, for Russia as well as everyone else.

Andrey Lebedev, former political editor of Izvestia, Moscow:

Lots of unusual developments have taken place as one more part of the Iranian nuclear power drama unfolded:

1) The United States put aside its demands for "decisive action" from the IAEA against Tehran, siding with China in letting Moscow make one more attempt to prevent the worst - not purely by diplomatic means but by furthering Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation, which has always been anathema to Washington.

2) No further objections were made by the United States or the EU against resuming work at the Isfahan nuclear enterprise where uranium is converted into uranium hexafluoride gas before enrichment.

3) A fatwa issued by an Iranian mullah permitting use of nuclear weapons "as a counteraction" was surprisingly hushed down by Western media and diplomats.

4) The Israeli military suddenly turned into doves and declared there is no need to take decisive action against Iranian nuclear sites - at least in the immediate future.

All of these anomalies seem to imply that the international community has learned its North Korean lesson. Breakdown of talks led to the expulsion of the IAEA inspectors from that country and, at the moment, nobody knows for sure how far Pyongyang is from wielding real nuclear weapons. So, the benefits of continuing the talks with Iran far outweigh the drawbacks of Tehran obtaining some additional preferences in the process.

On the other hand, Iran stepped back from its condition of uranium enrichment on its territory only. It has also been reported that Iranian authorities are willing to forget about the $40 million in fines due from Russia for delays in the Bushehr-1 construction. These facts attest to Iran's intention to at least stay engaged in the talks, if not to crown them with positive results. The meaning of positive results for Tehran and its counterparts is another question.

The history of the Iranian nuclear program shows that the current Iranian leaders are determined to acquire nuclear weapons. There are simply no other reasonable explanations for Iran's history of secrecy and evasion. Still, in a few years, internal changes in Iran would be prompted if its current leaders go down the path of confrontation with the world community - with the predictably negative results for the country's economy. So it is understandable why President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters are maneuvering, making some concessions in the diplomatic talks, while trying to keep the doors open for all possibilities in the long run.

Most experts take the threat of a nuclear Iran very seriously. Former Russian atomic energy minister Victor Mikhailov estimates that Iran could acquire that capability in five to 10 years, an estimate that is corroborated by Israeli scientists. A more immediate milestone, however, is the technological threshold that finally leads to uranium enrichment, and that threshold may be no more than a few months away, with some experts reducing that to one month - barring an agreement between Tehran and the IAEA.

In this context, special attention should be paid to Iranian attempts to acquire the latest technology in the field, specifically the demand that Iranian scientists be admitted to the premises of the proposed joint venture in Russia.

Shaun Walker, staff writer, Russia Profile:

It is difficult to see the agreement reached by Kiriyenko in Tehran as anything significant. The Iranians are still saying they want to enrich uranium in Iran, and so no real breakthrough has been made at all. While Iran, even if it starts enriching uranium, will not have broken any of its international obligations, it seems that all but the most naive observers doubt the integrity of Tehran's insistence that it is only seeking peaceful energy.

Even if the Iranians do agree to the Russian proposal and additionally agree to halt all in-country enrichment, it is unclear what effect it will have. At a recent press conference in Moscow, a prominent Russian nuclear scientist said that this would not stop Iran from having weapon-creating potential.

It's difficult to see any real way out of this crisis. The Iranians are unwilling to back down, and the West is faced with the choice of appeasing a lunatic regime or embarking on military action in difficult circumstances that will surely resonate far beyond Iran's borders, given the current international tensions.

Worryingly, the talk in Washington now seems to be veering towards the latter option, with even Democrats such as Senator Hillary Clinton calling for urgent sanctions, and many unwilling to rule out military options. "There is only one thing worse than the United States exercising a military option, and that is Iran having nuclear weapons," Senator John McCain, a Republican, said recently.

However, the radicalization of rhetoric and increased interference in politics by the religious hierarchy in Iran over the past few years has been at least in part a reaction to the bile directed at it from Washington. While European leaders made some attempts to engage with Tehran, the United States remained unable to forget the past. Labelling a state led (albeit with restrictions on his power) by Mohammad Khatami, by regional standards democratically elected and a relatively pro-Western reformer, as "evil" was one of the more outrageous and counterproductive moments of Bush's tenure. Had the United States made real attempts to engage the Khatami government, or even worked with the EU troika over the past year to present the Iranians with a united compromise proposal on nuclear development that it would have been very difficult for them to refuse, then it is unlikely that the recent hardening of Tehran's position would have been so dramatic.

Ahmadinejad himself is not an "evil dictator" like Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il. He is a fragile leader in at most a semi-autocratic state, and the signs are that there are many in the higher echelons of government in Tehran that are deeply unhappy with his crazy statements. Despite the opacity of Iranian politics, this became obvious in the parliament's triple refusal of various nominees for the post of oil minister recently. Likewise, the vast majority of ordinary Iranians appear moderate, cultured and intelligent, not to mention thoroughly uninterested in the Arab cause or in the destruction of Israel and the United States. Continued aggression on the part of the United States is likely to force disillusioned elements in the Iranian political and public spheres to rally around Ahmadinejad and stand united in the face of a common aggressor, rather than work to overthrow him or at least rein him in.

Whatever happens, minor concessions and partial agreement with Russian proposals do not mean that Iranian weapons ambitions have been stymied. Tehran is simply playing a clever game to win time. And with the current Iranian and U.S. leaders in full rhetorical sway, it may already be too late to avert a crisis.