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Jerusalem Viewpoints


No. 544         6 Tamuz 5766 / 2 July 2006

Russia, Iran, and the Nuclear Question: The Putin Record

Robert O. Freedman


  • Vladimir Putin inherited a strong Russian-Iranian relationship from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Russia under Yeltsin made major arms agreements with Iran, selling Tehran jet planes, tanks, and submarines, and also began building a nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr. The two countries also cooperated on regional issues such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

  • While Putin and Iran were to have some problems over Chechnya and the optimal exit route for Caspian Sea oil and natural gas, these problems were overcome by 2005 when Iran emerged as Putin's most important ally in the Middle East. As Russia sought to reemerge as a major power in the Middle East, Moscow increasingly became Iran's protector against sanctions.

  • The reasons behind Moscow's unwillingness to cooperate with Washington on the nuclear issue included: 1) The sale of the reactor earned hard currency for Russia; 2) Iran had repeatedly hinted to Moscow that once the first reactor was operating, it would purchase a number of additional reactors; 3) The Bushehr reactor, and the factories in Russia which supply it, employ a large number of Russian engineers and technicians and thus help keep Russia's nuclear industry alive; 4) By standing firm on Bushehr, Putin could demonstrate to domestic audiences Russia's independent policy vis-a-vis the U.S.

  • By the fall of 2005 Moscow had to deal, for the first time, with a U.S.-EU alignment on Iran. In the September 2005 IAEA Board of Governors statement that threatened Iran with the possibility of sanctions, Russia abstained, seeking to put off the day of decision as long as possible, although sooner rather than later Moscow will have to choose between Iran and the West.

  • It would appear that Moscow, despite its rhetoric, has decided to acquiesce in Iran's nuclear program, most probably because of Putin's policy of enhancing Russian prestige in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world, at the expense of the United States. Russia's policy of dragging out negotiations as long as possible, while protecting Iran from sanctions, certainly strengthens Moscow's relations with Iran, while at the same time, by keeping oil prices high, it clearly helps the Russian economy.

  • Iran's new president is an Islamic "true-believer." Unlike his predecessors, who were willing to tolerate Russian policy in Chechnya, where Russian soldiers have killed thousands of Muslim Chechens, Ahmadinejad may one day decide that his Islamic beliefs obligate him to confront Russia on this issue. Were Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons, Moscow may wish it had supported sanctions against Iran when it had the opportunity.




Vladimir Putin inherited a strong Russian-Iranian relationship from his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Russia under Yeltsin made major arms agreements with Iran, selling Tehran jet planes, tanks, and submarines, and also began building a nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr. Under Yeltsin, the two countries also cooperated on regional issues such as Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and Yeltsin valued the low Iranian profile during the first Chechen war (1994-1996).

Putin strengthened the relationship further, beginning his rule by abrogating the Gore-Chenonymdin agreement under which Russia was to cease selling arms to Iran by 2000. While Putin and Iran were to have some problems over Chechnya and the optimal exit route for Caspian Sea oil and natural gas, these problems were overcome by 2005 when Iran emerged - despite its clandestine nuclear program - as Putin's most important ally in the Middle East. As Russia sought to reemerge as a major power in the Middle East, Moscow increasingly became Iran's protector against the sanctions that first the United States and then also the European Union sought to impose on Iran because of its violation of international agreements. Putin's policy on Iran, however, contained some serious risks for Moscow, including a sharply deteriorating relationship with the United States, and the possibility that the newly-elected Iranian president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, an Islamic fundamentalist, might one day challenge Russia over its policy in Chechnya.

While Russia's sale of the Bushehr nuclear power station is central to Iranian-Russian relations, there are a number of other facets of the relationship that are of almost equal importance. These include trade, which by 2005 reached the level of $2 billion per year,1 Russian arms sales to Iran, and diplomatic cooperation in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Both countries also have sought to prevent U.S. hegemony in the world. While there are several areas of conflict in the relationship, the most important of which is the legal status of the Caspian Sea, the two countries can be said to have reached the level of a tactical if not yet a strategic alliance.


Putin's Foreign Policy

President Vladimir Putin has put a great deal of emphasis on improving Russia's economy, not only through the sale of arms, oil, and natural gas (the Russian economy has been blessed with high oil and natural gas prices during most of his years in office), but also by selling high tech goods such as nuclear reactors and by expanding Russia's business ties abroad. Indeed, business interests have played an increasingly significant role in Putin's foreign policy.

Overall, Putin's central foreign policy aim has been to strengthen the Russian economy in the hope that Russia might regain its status as a great power. In the interim he has sought to create an "arc of stability" on Russia's frontiers so that economic development can proceed as rapidly as possible. This was one of the reasons Putin embraced an improved relationship with Turkey and ended Russian opposition to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. In theory at least, Putin's goal would appear to require a policy of increased cooperation with the economically advanced West led by the U.S.

At the same time, however, mindful of voices in the Duma (parliament) as well as in the security apparatus and the Russian foreign ministry unhappy at Moscow's appearing to play "second fiddle" to the U.S. after 9/11, Putin has from time to time asserted an independent position for Russia. Indeed, Russian foreign policy increasingly seeks to create the "multipolar world" advocated by former Russian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who is now a Putin adviser. The tension involved in cooperating with the U.S. but also competing with it clearly impacts the Russian-Iranian relationship.


Putin and the Impact of September 11

Putin's decision to draw closer to the U.S. after 9/11, and particularly his acquiescence in the deployment of U.S. troops in Central Asia was very dimly viewed by Tehran. Iranian radio noted on December 18, 2001, following the U.S. military victory in Afghanistan, "some political observers say that the aim of the U.S. diplomatic activities in the region is to carry out certain parts of U.S. foreign policy, so as to expand its sphere of influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and this is to lessen Russia's traditional influence in the region."2

A second problem in post-9/11 Russian-Iranian relations dealt with the Caspian Sea. When, due to Iranian obstinacy, an April 2002 Caspian summit failed, Putin moved to assert Russian authority in the region. First, there was a May 2002 agreement with Kazakhstan to jointly develop the oil fields lying in disputed waters between them; second, a major Russian naval exercise took place in the Caspian in early August 2002 with 60 ships and 10,000 troops, witnessed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. The exercises took place on the 280th anniversary of Peter the Great's naval campaign in the Caspian, both Kazakhstan and Azerbaizhan participated, and Putin called the purpose of the exercise" part of the war against terrorism."3 Finally, in September 2002 Putin and Azeri leader Gaidar Aliev signed an agreement dividing the seabed between them but holding the water in common.4

Iran, however, sought to demonstrate that it would not be cowed by the Russian military move. In September 2003, while Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid-Reza Asefi was stressing that the militarization of the Caspian Sea would never ensure the security of littoral states, Iran launched a "Paykan" missile boat into the Caspian "to protect the interests of the Iranian nation."5


Nuclear Issues Become Central - 2002-2005

While Russian-Iranian tension rose over the Caspian, Russian nuclear reactor sales and arms sales continued. In July 2002, just a few weeks before the major military exercises on the Caspian, Moscow announced that not only would it finish the Bushehr reactor (despite U.S. opposition), but also stated it had begun discussions on building five additional reactors for Iran.6

As Moscow stepped up nuclear sales to Tehran, the U.S. sought to dissuade Russia through a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening to withhold $20 billion in aid to dismantle the old Soviet military arsenal, while also promising $10 billion in additional aid for Moscow.7 Meanwhile, support for the Chechens by Iranian newspapers, including those close to Khameini, raised questions in the minds of at least some Russians as to whether Moscow was backing the wrong side in the U.S.-Iranian dispute over the Iranian nuclear program.8

There appear to be four central reasons behind Moscow's unwillingness to cooperate with Washington on the nuclear issue. First, the sale of the reactor earned hard currency for Russia, and Putin could not be sure that at a time of escalating deficits in the U.S., the U.S. Congress would support aid to Russia. Second, once the first reactor was operating, Iran has repeatedly hinted to Moscow that it would purchase a number of additional reactors. Third, the Bushehr reactor, and the factories in Russia which supply it, employ a large number of Russian engineers and technicians and thus help keep Russia's nuclear industry alive - both to earn money and to help in the development of high tech for the Russian economy. Finally, by standing firm on Bushehr, Putin could demonstrate to domestic audiences Russia's independent policy vis-a-vis the U.S.

Yet such a policy held dangers for Moscow. First, it served to alienate the United States, despite constant Russian protestations that the Bushehr reactor would only be used for peaceful purposes. Second, especially as revelations emerged about the extent of the Iranian nuclear program, Moscow ran the danger that either the U.S. or Israel might attack the Bushehr reactor. The problem became especially serious for Russia in December 2002 when it was revealed in a series of satellite photographs that, in addition to Bushehr, Iran was building two new nuclear facilities, one a centrifuge plant near the city of Natanz and the other a heavy water plant near the city of Arak.9 Initially, Russia downplayed the development, with the Director of the Ministry of Atomic Energy (Minatom), Alexander Rumantsev, stating that Russia had nothing to do with the two plants. Other representatives of Minatom said Russia was ready to supply nuclear fuel to Tehran, but only if the Iranians guaranteed the return of the spent fuel to Moscow. Rumantsev, however, said Russia was ready to supply nuclear fuel to Iran without conditions.10

In March 2003, with an IAEA team visiting the two plants, Rumantsev asserted that Russia could not tell whether Iran was secretly developing nuclear weapons: "While Russia is helping Iran build its nuclear plant (at Bushehr), it is not being informed by Iran on all the other projects currently underway."11

Following its initial successes in the Iraq war, the U.S. stepped up pressure on Russia. In response, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov noted in May 2003 that Russia wanted all Iranian nuclear programs to be under the supervision of the IAEA.12

Following the Bush-Putin talks in St. Petersburg in June 2003 when Bush was at the height of his international influence following the fall of Baghdad, Putin asserted that the positions of Russia and the U.S. on Iran were closer than people thought. However, he added that "the pretext of an Iranian nuclear weapons program (could be used) as an instrument of unfair competition against Russian companies."13

The U.S. was making two demands on Russia regarding the Bushehr reactor. First, while the U.S. wanted Russia to end all support for Bushehr, at a minimum, the U.S. argued that Moscow should not supply any nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor unless Iran agreed to send all used fuel back to Moscow. Second, Moscow should also withhold the nuclear fuel until Iran had signed an additional protocol with the IAEA permitting that agency unannounced visits to all Iranian nuclear facilities. On this issue, the G-8 (of which Russia is a member) issued a statement noting: "We urge Iran to sign and implement the IAEA Additional Protocol without delay or conditions. We offer our strongest support to comprehensive IAEA examination of this country's nuclear program."14

The question, of course, was how far Russia would go to pressure Iran. While British Prime Minister Tony Blair asserted that Moscow had agreed not to deliver nuclear fuel until Iran signed the IAEA protocol, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko stated that Moscow would only freeze construction on the Bushehr plant if Iran refused to agree to return all spent nuclear fuel to Russia, and that Iran was not required to sign the protocol because "the protocol is an agreement that is signed on a voluntary basis."15

Meanwhile, Minatom Minister Rumanstev announced on June 3, 2003, that the Bushehr reactor would be completed in 2005, not 2004 as originally planned. While he blamed the delay on the need to replace the reactor's original German parts, it could well be that this was a gesture to deflect some U.S. pressure.16 In September 2003 a dispute between Russia and Iran broke out over who would pay for the return of the spent fuel from the reactor, with Iran demanding that Russia pay for it and Moscow refusing.

The EU sent a delegation to Tehran in October 2003 which succeeded in extracting an agreement to temporarily stop enriching uranium and to sign the additional protocol as well as to inform the IAEA of its past nuclear activities. Moscow hailed the Iranian action, and the head of the Iranian Security Council, Hassan Rowhani, came to Moscow on November 11 to formally announce that Tehran was temporarily suspending the enrichment of uranium and was sending a letter to the IAEA agreeing to the additional protocol.17 Moscow declared that Iran was now in full compliance with the IAEA, and Putin said that now Russia and Iran would continue their nuclear cooperation.18 Indeed, Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko, eyeing the possible sale of additional reactors to Tehran, said Russia would now "do its utmost to expedite the completion of Bushehr."19

In part because of Russian (and EU) pressure, the Board of Governors of the IAEA in November 2003 decided not to refer Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council. Less than two months later, revelations about Pakistan's nuclear proliferation policies, including to Iran, led IAEA chief Muhammed ElBaradei to warn about the collapse of the non-proliferation system. IAEA inspectors found that Iran had hidden (and not told the IAEA about), among other things, an advanced P-2 centrifuge system that could be used for enriching uranium, along with a program for producing polonium 210 which could be used as a neutron initiator for nuclear weapons.20


Completing the Bushehr Reactor

The central factor in Russian-Iranian relations in 2004 was the question of when Russia would complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor. Throughout 2004 either the IAEA continued to find that Iran was hiding information about its nuclear activities, or Iran was reneging on agreements it had already made with the IAEA and/or the EU-3 (Germany, France and England). This, in turn, brought heavy U.S. pressure on Russia to hold off supplying nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor project, lest this enhanced Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. As 2004 wore on, the Russian leaders appeared to be somewhat persuaded by the U.S. argument and their criticism of Tehran mounted.

In November 2004, Iran signed an agreement with the EU-3 to suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities "on a voluntary basis." The goal of the EU-3 was to have Iran permanently suspend its enrichment activities and end its nuclear fuel cycle program, and the EU was prepared to offer Iran guarantees of fuel supply and management for Iran's nuclear power program and also to help Iran acquire a light-water research reactor if Iran cancelled its plans to build a heavy-water research reactor.21 Almost immediately, however, Iran seemed to back off from the agreement, with Hassan Rowhani, Iran's chief negotiator, saying, "The length of the suspension will only be for the length of the negotiations with the Europeans and...must be rational and not too long. We're talking about months, not years."22

The EU-3 deflected pressure from Russia and helped prevent not only a referral of Iran's nuclear program to the UN Security Council, but also possible U.S. and/or Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear installations. On the other hand, Moscow faced the possibility that, despite Iran's constant backsliding, the EU-3/Iran agreement of November 30, 2004, might actually take hold and, if so, the EU states could become competitors in Iran's nuclear market.23

It was clear throughout 2004 that Iran was seeking to wriggle out of its commitments to the IAEA and EU-3, and Moscow appeared to take an increasingly tough tone with Tehran on nuclear issues. Thus Putin, in June 2004, threatened that "Russia will halt its work at Bushehr if Iran refuses to behave in an open manner and fails to comply with the IAEA's demands." Similarly, when meeting with French leader Jacques Chirac and German leader Gerhard Schroeder in September, Putin stated Russia's opposition to an "expansion of the club of nuclear powers, notably through the addition of Iran."24

Putin himself, as the final negotiations with the EU-3 wound down, warned, "We are engaged in bilateral negotiations with Iran. We are helping it use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. If final agreements are achieved, we will continue this cooperation." When agreement was reached at the end of November, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak said, "we also welcome Iran's decision to freeze all uranium enrichment programs. This is a voluntary, trust-building measure. We hope this decision will be reliably fulfilled."25 The Russian Foreign Ministry noted, "a full and sustained fulfillment of this voluntary undertaking, with due monitoring on the part of the IAEA, is essential for the settlement of remaining issues regarding Iran's nuclear program."26


Moscow's Changed Position - 2005-2006

Moscow's sharp rhetoric vis-a-vis Tehran began to fade in 2005. In the latter part of 2004 Putin had suffered a number of embarrassing failures, both internally and externally, with the debacle in Beslan demonstrating just how far Putin was from normalizing the situation in Chechnya, and the pro-Western "Orange Revolution" in the Ukraine apparently indicating the defection of Russia's most important CIS neighbor. Consequently, Putin seems to have decided that he had to demonstrate both his own and Russia's continuing importance in world affairs. Asserting Russia's role in the Middle East and reinforcing his alliance with Iran were ways to do this.27

The process included inviting Iran to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an observer, and also to join the planned Caspian Sea security organization (Iran eagerly accepted both invitations). The two countries also stepped up planning for a north-south transportation corridor through Azerbaijan. In addition, Moscow launched a satellite for Iran and discussed the possible sale of submarine-launched missiles with a range of 200 kilometers to be fitted on submarines Russia had already sold to Iran.28 Such a sale would greatly complicate the activities of the U.S. fleet in the Persian Gulf/Indian Ocean region, as well as U.S.-Russian relations.

In early 2005, Iran became increasingly critical of the delay in Russia's completion of the reactor. Indeed, a commentary by Mehdi Mohammadi in Kehyan in January 2005 asserted that "the breaches of promise, subterfuge, and mischief-making of the Russians in the field of peaceful nuclear cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran is now a repeated saga.29 However, in February 2005, Russia signed the final agreement for the supply of nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor.30 Under the agreement, all spent fuel was to be returned to Russia, thus, in theory at least, preventing its diversion to atomic weapons. The agreement came after a Bush-Putin summit in which the U.S. and Russia pledged to work together against nuclear proliferation.31

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Hassan Rowhani, warned that Iran would never permanently cease enriching uranium, and if the U.S. sought sanctions at the UN Security Council, "The security and stability of the region would become a problem." Rowhani also stated that Iran was not happy with the pace of negotiations with the EU-3, and threatened to end the negotiations if there was no progress.32

In March 2005 the U.S. agreed to join the EU in offering economic incentives to Iran if it gave up its nuclear program.33 Several months later, however, in Iran an Islamic hard-liner, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, was elected president. Consequently, when the EU-3 presented its proposal to Ahmadinejad's government on August 5, 2005, it was contemptuously rejected as a "joke."34 The proposal called for a long-term EU-Iranian relationship which combined security and economic incentives, including giving Iran access to international technologies for light-water reactors, in return for Iran agreeing not to withdraw from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and keeping all Iranian nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards.35 Iran also announced it was resuming work at the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan, where it would transform uranium into nuclear fuel.36 The EU-3 then cancelled further talks with Iran, and the issue was referred to the IAEA.37

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on August 9 asserting that "it would be a wise decision on the part of Iran to stop enriching uranium and renew cooperation with the IAEA."38 French President Jacques Chirac warned that Iran would face censure by the UN Security Council if it did not reinstate a freeze on sensitive nuclear activities.39 The Russian Foreign Ministry, however, stated on September 5 that it was opposed to reporting Iran to the UN Security Council.40

At the UN in mid-September, Ahmadinejad delivered a fiery attack on the U.S. and Israel, while asserting that Iran would never give up its plans to enrich uranium.41 When the IAEA met in late September, Russia asserted its opposition to referring Iran's nuclear program to the UNSC, with the Russian Foreign Ministry saying it considered such proposals to be "counterproductive and noncondusive to the search for a solution to the problem by political and diplomatic methods."42 While Russia (and eleven other countries) chose to abstain, an IAEA resolution passed 22-1 finding that Iran's "failures and breaches...constitute non-compliance with Iran's agreement to let the international body verify that its nuclear program is purely peaceful." The resolution noted that the "absence of confidence that Iran's nuclear program is exclusively for peaceful purposes has given rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council." It called on Iran to resuspend conversion of uranium at its Isfahan plant and asked Tehran to return to negotiations with the EU-3.43

While Moscow did not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, it also did not want sanctions brought against one of its closest allies, who was also a very good customer, buying not only the Bushehr nuclear reactor (and possibly more in the future) but military equipment as well. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Russia in October 2005 to seek Russian support for sanctions on Iran. However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated that Russia wanted to pursue negotiations in the IAEA rather than go to the UNSC, noting, "We think that the current situation permits us to develop this issue and do everything possible within the means of this organization [the IAEA] without referring this issue to other organizations, so far."44 Putin echoed Lavrov's position in a telephone call to Ahmadinejad, in which he reportedly stated: "The need was stressed for decisions on all relevant issues to be made using political methods within the legal framework of the IAEA. In connection to this, the Russian President advocated the further development of Iran's cooperation with the IAEA, including with the aim of renewing the negotiations process."45

Nonetheless, Iran was to prove a difficult ally for Russia. After Ahmadinejad told Iranian students on October 26 that not only must Israel "be wiped off the map" but also that any country which recognizes Israel "will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation's fury,"46 Foreign Minister Lavrov stated: "What I saw on CNN is unacceptable. We will convey our standpoint to the Iranian side. We're inviting the Iranian ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and will ask him to explain the motives behind this kind of statement." He also noted that these kinds of statements "do not facilitate the efforts of those who want to normalize the situation surrounding Iran."47

Following a November 24 IAEA meeting, Russia signed a $1 billion arms deal with Iran that included $700 million for surface-to-air missiles that could be deployed to protect Iran's nuclear installations.48

Iran's January 2006 announcement that it would enrich additional uranium effectively ended talks with the EU-3, which called on the Security Council to take action against Iran.49 When the IAEA met in early February 2006, it noted Iran's unwillingness to provide inspectors with the necessary information about its nuclear program and voted 27-3 (with 5 abstentions) to refer Iran to the UN Security Council in March if Tehran failed to "restore the international community's confidence in its nuclear program."50 While Russia voted for the resolution, the additional month was aimed at giving Moscow time to win Iran over to its plan to enrich Iranian uranium in Russia. Meanwhile, Putin, seeking to build-up Russia's technological base, announced a program to make Russia a world center for uranium enrichment.51

In response to the IAEA decision, Iranian President Ahmadinejad ordered industrial-level nuclear enrichment, halted surprise visits by the IAEA to its nuclear installations, and ordered the IAEA to remove seals and surveillance equipment at some Iranian nuclear facilities.52 Russian-Iranian talks collapsed in early March, primarily because Iran continued to demand the right to enrich uranium domestically.53

As the time for UN Security Council deliberations on Iran neared, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov floated the idea of letting Iran do a limited amount of nuclear enrichment domestically while the bulk of the enrichment would be done in Russia. While this idea appeared to have the endorsement of IAEA chief ElBaradei, U.S. opposition killed it.54

On the eve of the UN Security Council debate, Lavrov was sharply critical of Iranian behavior during its talks with Russia: "We are extremely disappointed with Tehran's conduct during these talks. Iran is absolutely failing to help those [parties] who are seeking peaceful ways to resolve this problem. Contradictory signals are coming from Tehran. One day they reject it, the next day they don't."55

Despite the criticism, Russia took a strong stand against the possible imposition of sanctions against Iran. The end result was a non-binding resolution which, while expressing "serious concern" about Iran's actions, contained no threat of sanctions.56

In April 2006, on the eve of a visit by ElBaradei to Iran to ascertain Iran's compliance with the Security Council resolution, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had succeeded in enriching uranium and had "joined the club of nuclear countries" by putting into successful operation a cascade of 164 centrifuges.57 While this number was insufficient to provide sufficient enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization's Deputy Director, Mohamed Saeedi, said that within a year the number of centrifuges in operation would be 3,000 (in the opinion of most observers, enough for a nuclear weapon, if the centrifuges were competently managed), and in the future Iran would bring 54,000 centrifuges on line.58

In reaction, Russian atomic energy head Sergei Kiriyenko downplayed Iran's ability to create a nuclear bomb,59 while Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called Iran's announcement "a step in the wrong direction,"60 though he also asserted, "We are convinced that neither sanctions nor the use of force will lead to a solution of this problem."61

On April 21, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Nicholas Burns called for Russia to stop providing weapons to Iran and to end assistance to the Bushehr nuclear project. These demands were immediately rejected by Russian officials who stated the projects would go on unless the UN Security Council imposed sanctions - an unlikely possibility given Russian opposition to sanctions.62

The IAEA report of April 28, 2006, concluded that because of gaps in information, "including the role of the military in Iran's nuclear program, the agency is unable to make progress in its efforts to provide assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran."63 Following the report, the U.S. and its European allies pushed for sanctions on Iran, though Russia continued to resist sanctions and also opposed any kind of military action against Iran. Russia's new UN representative, Vitaly Churkin, stated: "We are convinced that there is no military solution to the problem. However, complicated and difficult it may be, a political and diplomatic solution to this problem needs to be sought."64 Meanwhile, in an effort to persuade Russia not to support a sanctions resolution, Iran offered a major economic incentive - the chance to be the preferred bidder on two additional nuclear reactors,65 a development that would not only earn Russia valuable hard currency, but would also fit nicely into Putin's high-tech economic program.


Conclusions

Through most of Putin's presidency, Moscow has been torn between its desire to maintain good relations with Iran - a diplomatic ally in many sensitive areas of Eurasia and a major purchaser of Russian arms and nuclear equipment - and increasing pressure from the U.S. and the EU to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As Russian President Putin has said on numerous occasions, Russia does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

After Iranian efforts to hide parts of its nuclear program became evident in December 2002, Russia joined with the EU to get Iranian acceptance of the additional protocol to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which allows the IAEA to make unannounced inspection visits to Iranian nuclear installations.

By the fall of 2005 there was a marked increase in the level of cooperation between the EU-3 and the United States over Iran, along with the electoral defeat of German Prime Minister Gerhard Schroeder who had opposed U.S. policy on Iran. Thus Moscow, for the first time, had to deal with a U.S.-EU alignment on Iran. The new hard-line Iranian president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, not only contemptuously rejected the EU-3 plan presented in August 2005, but, by threatening to wipe Israel off the map, and asserting that the Holocaust was a "myth," raised serious questions about Iranian claims of "peaceful" intentions for their nuclear program. In the September 2005 IAEA Board of Governors statement that threatened Iran with the possibility of sanctions, Russia abstained. Russia has sought to put off the day of decision as long as possible, although sooner rather than later Moscow will have to choose between Iran and the West.

Looking at Russia's behavior throughout 2005, it would appear that Moscow, despite its rhetoric, has decided to acquiesce in Iran's nuclear program, most probably because of Putin's policy of enhancing Russian prestige in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the world, at the expense of the United States. However, Russia's policy of dragging out negotiations as long as possible, while protecting Iran from sanctions, contains both benefits and risks for Moscow. It certainly strengthens Moscow's relations with Iran, while at the same time, by keeping oil prices high, it clearly helps the Russian economy.

Yet this policy carries a number of risks for Russia. First, Iran's new president is an Islamic "true-believer." Unlike his predecessors, who were willing to tolerate Russian policy in Chechnya, where Russian soldiers have killed thousands of Muslim Chechens, Ahmadinejad may one day decide that his Islamic beliefs obligate him to confront Russia on this issue. Were Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons, Moscow may wish it had supported sanctions against Iran when it had the opportunity.

A more immediate concern for Moscow is the fact that as Iran draws closer to a nuclear weapons capability, the possibility of a U.S. (or Israeli) strike on Iran's nuclear facilities increases. Moscow may therefore soon be faced with the choice of agreeing to limited sanctions or acquiescing in another attack by the U.S. on one of its allies.

*     *     *

Notes

1. "Russian Presidential service says [Russia is] ready for nuclear cooperation with Iran," Interfax, October 25, 2005, FBIS-Russia, October 26, 2005.
2. "U.S. military presence in Central Asia to lessen Russian influence," Radio Iran, December 10, 2001, FBIS-MESA, December 18, 2001.
3. Alexander Reutov, "Russia conclusively defines its borders on the Caspian," Kommersant, September 24, 2002, CDSP, vol. 54, no. 39, p. 17.
4. Ibid., p. 18.
5. "Paykan missile boat floats in Caspian," Ambo News, September 29, 2003.
6. Cited in article by Sergei Leskov, Izvestia, August 1, 2002, CDSP, vol. 54, no. 31, p. 17-18.
7. Ibid., p. 18.
8. Maxim Yugin, "Ayatollahs support terrorists," Izvestia, October 31, 2002, CDSP, vol. 54, no. 44, p. 23.
9. For a useful survey of the Iranian nuclear installations, see Joseph Cirincione, et al., Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, second edition (Washington: Carnegie Endowment, 2005), ch. 15. See also William Broad and David Sanger, "Relying on Computer, U.S. Seeks to Prove Iran's Nuclear Aims," New York Times, November 13, 2005.
10. See Guy Dinmore, "Russia ready to supply N-fuel to Iran," Financial Times, December 24, 2002.
11. Cited in Ali Akbar Dareini, "Iran's first nuclear power plant 70 percent constructed," AP, Washington Times, March 12, 2003.
12. "Moscow-Tehran cooperation gives no grounds for criticism - Russian Foreign Minister," Interfax, May 28, 2003, FBIS-Russia Diplomatic Panorama, May 28, 2003.
13. Simon Saradzhyan, "Russia needs Iran proof or incentives," Moscow Times, June 3, 2003.
14. Cited in "Primary points from the statements of the Group of 8," New York Times, June 3, 2003. See also Judy Dempsey, "EU presses Iran on nuclear arms," Financial Times, May 27, 2003.
15. Cited in Vladimir Isachenko, "Russia will ship nuclear fuel to Iran," Washington Post, June 5, 2003.
16. Cited in Ibid.
17. Seth Mydans, "Russia ready to help Iran with A-plant," New York Times, November 11, 2003.
18. Ibid.
19. Cited in "Russian spokesman calls meetings with Rowhani 'constructive'," IRNA (Tehran), November 13, 2003, FBIS-MESA, November 13, 2003.
20. See Scott Peterson, "Evidence of possible work on nukes tests Iran's credibility," Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 2004; and Carla Anne Robbins, "U.N. report ties nuclear program to Iran's military," Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2004.
21. For a Russian view of this possibility, see Arthur Blinov and Andrey Vaganov, "Iran-Iraq slap in Moscow's face: Russia sidelined when questions of freezing Tehran's nuclear program and writing off Baghdad's debt are tackled," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, November 23, 2004, FBIS-Russia, November 24, 2004.
22. Cited in Dmitry Suslov, "Iranian Draw," Russky Kuryer, June 13, 2004, CDSP, vol. 56, no. 24, p. 15.
23. Cited in Alexei Andreyev, "Sochi Three," Russky Kuryer, September 1, 2004, CDSP, vol. 56, no. 35, p. 19.
24. "Putin says [he] applauds Iran's decision to suspend uranium enrichment programs," Interfax, November 25, 2004, FBIS-Russia, November 25, 2004.
25. "Russian Foreign Ministry welcomes [well-balanced] IAEA resolution on Iran," Interfax, November 30, 2004, FBIS-Russia, November 30, 2004.
26. "Russia hopes Iran to continue cooperation with IAEA," ITAR-TASS, November 30, 2004, FBIS-Russia, November 30, 2004.
27. During the early part of 2005 Putin decided to sell surface-to-air missiles to Syria, and he also visited Egypt, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority in April. Russia also protected Syria from sanctions because of its behavior in Lebanon, and in 2006 Putin invited a Hamas delegation to Moscow - in direct opposition to U.S. policy.
28. "Russia will equip Iranian subs with missiles," Kommersant, July 5, 2005. Cited in Habalar Report, July 6, 2005. See also "Russian shipyard plans to upgrade Iranian submarines with 200 km club-5 missile," Agenstvo Voyennykh Novostey, FBIS-Russia, July 6, 2005. The talks continued into 2006.
29. Mehdi Mohammadi, "Gone with the wind," Keyhan, January 2005, FBIS-MESA, January 9, 2005.
30. Scott Peterson, "Russia fuels Iran's atomic bid," Christian Science Monitor, February 28, 2005.
31. Peter Baker, "U.S.-Russian pact aimed at nuclear terrorism," Washington Post, February 24, 2005.
32. Cited in Nazila Fathi, "Iran says it won't give up program to enrich uranium," New York Times, March 6, 2005.
33. David Sanger, "U.S. and European allies agree on steps in Iranian dispute," New York Times, March 11, 2005.
34. "Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman dismisses EU proposal as a 'joke'; notes three 'flaws'," Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran), August 7, 2005, FBIS-MESA, August 8, 2005.
35. For the text of the EU proposals, see Mehr News Agency, "Full text of EU nuclear proposals," August 5, 2005, FBIS-MESA, August 6, 2005.
36. Cited in Dafna Linzer, "Iran resumes uranium work, ignores warning," Washington Post, August 9, 2005.
37. Kathrin Benhold, "Europeans call off talks as Iran balks on nuclear issue," New York Times, August 24, 2005.
38. "Russian Foreign Ministry urges Iran to stop uranium conversion without delay," RIA, Moscow Times, August 10, 2005.
39. Elaine Sciolino, "Chirac warns Iran of penalty if it continues nuclear work," New York Times, August 30, 2005.
40. "Russia opposes reporting Iran to UNSC," New York Times, September 5, 2005.
41. Cited in Dafna Linzer, "Iran's President does what U.S. diplomacy could not," Washington Post, September 19, 2005.
42. "Russia opposes referral of Iran to UN Security Council," ITAR-TASS, September 22, 2005, FBIS-Russia, September 23, 2005.
43. For the full text of the IAEA resolution, see IAEA website, "Implementation of the NPT safeguards agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran," resolution adopted on September 24, 2005.
44. Robin Wright, "Rice is rebuffed by Russia on Iran," Washington Post, October 16, 2005.
45. "Russia: Putin advocates Iran developing cooperation with the IAEA, renewing talks," Interfax, October 25, 2005, FBIS-Russia, October 26, 2005.
46. Cited in Nazila Fathi, "Iran's new President says Israel must be wiped off the map," New York Times, October 27, 2005.
47. Cited in Ivan Groshkov, "Iranian President's anti-Israeli remarks viewed; deemed dirty trick on Lavrov," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, October 30, 2005, FBIS-Russia, November 1, 2005.
48. See Andrew Kramer, "Russia to sell anti-aircraft missiles to Iran in billion dollar deal," New York Times, December 3, 2005. See also Lyuba Pronina, "Moscow inks arms deal with Tehran," Moscow Times, December 5, 2005; and "Russian official says sales of Tor-MI missile systems to Iran to continue," Ria-Novosti, December 15, 2005, FBIS-Russia, December 16, 2005.
49. Elaine Sciolino, "Iran proposes new talks with Europeans who are mostly dismissive," New York Times, January 18, 2006.
50. Cited in Artur Blinov, "Tehran agrees to talks with Moscow," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 6, 2006, CDSP, vol. 58, no. 6, p. 18. See also Michael Adler, "Iran nuclear issue to be reported to UN Security Council," AFP, February 5, 2006, FBIS-MESA, February 6, 2006.
51. "Russian Atomic Chief hopes Iran to be first to join enrichment center," ITAR-TASS, February 8, 2006, FBIS-Russia, February 9, 2006.
52. Blinov, loc. cit., and Ali Akbar Dareini, "Nuclear inspections are curbed by Iran," AP, Washington Post, February 6, 2006; and Alissa Rubin, "Rejecting cooperation, Iran asks IAEA to remove seals, cameras," Los Angeles Times (on-line edition), February 7, 2006.
53. Oliver Bullough, "No nuclear breakthrough as Iran stands fast," AP, Moscow Times, March 2, 2006.
54. Elaine Sciolino, "Russia and West split on Iran nuclear issue," New York Times, March 7, 2006; and "IAEA's ElBaradei favors Iran 'small-scale' nuclear program," AFP North European Service, February 16, 2006, FBIS-Russia, February 18, 2006.
55. Cited in Neil Buckley, et al., "Moscow may be losing patience with Tehran stance in nuclear stand-off," Financial Times, March 14, 2006.
56. The text of the March 29, 2006, statement was published in the Washington Post (on-line edition), March 30, 2006.
57. Cited in Moscow Times, April 12, 2006.
58. Cited in Mehr News Agency, "Official says Iran informed IAEA of plan to complete Natanz Site, 3,000 centrifuges," April 12, 2006, FBIS-MESA, April 13, 2006. See also Henry Mayer, "Iran vows to boost uranium program," AP, Moscow Times, April 13, 2006.
59. "Russian Atomic head says Iran nuclear problem may have diplomatic solution," ITAR-TASS, April 14, 2006, FBIS-Russia, April 15, 2006.
60. Cited in "World united in alarm over Iran nuclear advance," AFP/Reuters, Turkish Times (on-line edition), April 13, 2006.
61. Cited in Simon Saradzhyan, "Russia seeks Iran diplomacy," Moscow Times, April 19, 2006.
62. Paul Richter and Kim Murphy, "U.S. wants embargo on arms to Iran," Los Angeles Times (on-line edition), April 22, 2006.
63. Cited in Maggie Farley and Alissa J. Rubin, "UN Nuclear Agency takes steps toward sanctions on Iran," Los Angeles Times (on-line edition), April 29, 2006. See also Elaine Sciolino, "UN agency says Iran falls short on nuclear data: enrichment is confirmed," New York Times, April 29, 2006.
64. Cited in "Russia's UN envoy rules out threat of force in Iran resolution," ITAR-TASS, May 3, 2006, FBIS-Russia, May 4, 2006.
65. "Russia ready to bid for new Iranian nuclear contracts," ITAR-TASS, May 2, 2006, FBIS-Russia, May 4, 2006. See also "Iranian envoy says Russian bid for new nuclear contracts to be viewed favorably," Interfax, FBIS-Russia, April 23, 2006.

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Dr. Robert O. Freedman, an Associate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science at Baltimore Hebrew University and is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. He is currently completing a book on Russian policy toward the Middle East since the collapse of the Soviet Union.


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