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January 8, 2003
Hooman Peimami
A EurasiaNet Commentary

The United States concern over stability in Central Asia makes American diplomats anxious about Irans development of nuclear energy plants for two reasons: First, because Iran, which US President George W. Bush has branded part of an "axis of evil," is trying to build nuclear plants for electricity; and second, because Russia officially an American ally but also a competitor for hegemony in Central Asia is helping.

The United States has sought to stop Irans nuclear power program, claiming that it supports a stealth program to develop nuclear weapons, for years. Along the way, this effort has negatively affected Russian-American relations since the early 1990s. Between December 23 and 27, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev highlighted the widening gap between Russia and the United States over various issues, particularly their relations with Iran, when he visited Tehran. The visit and its likely aftermath illustrate how Russian strategic interests in Iran run counter to American ones.

During his visit, Rumyantsev announced that Irans Bushehr Nuclear Power Reactor would be online in December 2003, while referring to the expansion of Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation. In so doing, he demonstrated Russias eagerness to continue and expand its involvement in Irans non-military nuclear program; the minister said as much upon his return to Moscow. The Bushehr project provides anxious Americans with a symbol of Irans growth and strategy. West Germany had originally planned to finance a two-reactor project during the 1970s, when Irans shah was a key strategic ally to the United States, but left it unfinished after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. In the early 1990s, the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry undertook a revised plan to build one reactor at 65 percent of the originally envisaged capacity. Iran lost many power generators during its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, and its population has doubled to about 70 million since 1979. In this context, the $800 million Bushehr project is critical to Irans growth. It also promises lucrative receipts into Russias exhausted economy.

After its completion, the project will generate income for Russia, which will fuel the reactor and provide expertise for its repair and maintenance. If the project succeeds, it will probably spur Iran to offer similar contracts to Russia. The Russians are willing to build up to six more reactors for the Iranians, who are planning to generate annually 6,000 megawatt of nuclear power within a ten-year period. In Tehran, Rumyantsev described his country as "extremely interested" in Irans plans. He made these remarks shortly after the United States voiced suspicions about Irans use of its Arak and Natanz nuclear facilities for military nuclear purposes. By timing his visit so close to this American criticism and keying his remarks to repudiate that criticism, Rumyantsev sent an indirect message about when Russia will defer to American preferences.

The visit served to distance Russia from the United States in two ways. First, Rumyantsev rejected the Bush Administrations worries that the Bushehr plant masks a weapons-building agenda. "Iran is using nuclear energy exclusively for peaceful purposes," Rumyantsev told reporters. Second, he stressed the full compliance of Iran and Russia with their obligations as parties to the Non-proliferation Treaty of 1968. By explicitly declaring Iran a peaceful customer, the minister echoed Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanovs remarks in Tokyo on December 18. "Moscow strictly adheres to all international norms regarding the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction," Ivanov said then about his countrys ties to Iran. This rhetoric contradicts the United States portrait of Iran as an untrustworthy state.

Russia is, of course, not interested in directly provoking the Bush Administration. The fact that it has made a different calculation about dealing with Iran reflects an economic imperative. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union reaped fortunes from sales of arms and nuclear non-military technology. Since 1991, Russians have largely failed to penetrate the major international markets for these goods. That leaves Iran and a few other arms and nuclear assistance customers as Russias main source of foreign income, outside the export of oil and gas. Since oil and gas prices can be volatile, Russia might pursue relations with Iran on economic grounds alone.

Yet what has made an economic investment in Iranian nuclear power feasible involves geopolitics as well. Both Iran and Russia see advantages in expanding mutual relations based on their sympathetic views on a variety of political, economic and military/security issues. Shared concern about the increasing American political and military presence in their proximity drives the countries interest in working together. That concern, in an economically promising context, allows Russia to pursue its objectives without concern for American disapproval.

Editors Note: Dr. Hooman Peimani researches international relations and works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva.

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