Russia, the West, and Iran's nuclear future

triangtehran.jpg Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, inaugurates a heavy-water nuclear facility in the central Iranian town of Arak, on Sat., Aug. 26. The heavy-water production plant went into operation despite U.N. demands that Iran roll back its nuclear program. Tehran says it is for peaceful purposes but Western countries fear it could eventually be used to develop a nuclear bomb.  Credit: AP Photo/ISNA, Arash Khamoushi

It’s an understatement to say the world is in an awkward position regarding Iran’s nuclear program. Tehran signed the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which gives it the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and the United States, Europe and the UN have failed to make any headway in verifying if the program is for energy, rather than eventual weapons production.

Recently, Iran began enriching uranium again at its underground centrifuge facility at Natanz. Enrichment is the process of separating the two isotopes—U-238 and U-235—usually by centrifugation; the lighter U-235 is the more useful variety for generating nuclear power. Though Iran’s recent activity could be for peaceful purposes, it is also a possible step toward weapons production and an indication, say analysts, that the country is bent on ignoring the concerns of the UN.

“It’s a weakness of the non-proliferation treaty that a country can develop all the technology it needs for a nuclear weapon and then withdraw from the treaty, and one can imagine Iran doing that,” said Hugh Gusterson, an anthropologist at MIT who studies the culture and politics of nuclear proliferation. “The trouble is that, right now, we’re trying to tell Iran it can’t do something it has the right to do under the NPT.”

Russia, while notorious for speaking with forked tongue on issues of proliferation, may be able to exert some influence in this delicate situation, where other nations would be ineffective.

“Whether Russia is credible or not, it is in a key position,” said David Holloway, a professor of political science at Stanford University. “You don’t pick who you will deal with on this issue. You have to deal with the people who may have some leverage, and the Russians certainly may have some.”

Iran has been pursuing a nuclear energy program since before its 1979 revolution. Initially the government had Western backing, but political upheaval interrupted its efforts. Then Iran’s war with Iraq in the ‘80s stalled any further development.

Iran does have legitimate energy needs, but since it’s surrounded by nuclear states—or ones backed by the U.S.—the weapons option seems plausible. In any case, Iran sought to restart the program after the war and began shopping for contractors to complete its first nuclear power plant, a facility at Bushehr. But the nation was still an isolated state and bidders failed to materialize.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was falling apart and, along with it, the subsequent Russian economy, plunging the military-industrial complex into a desperate search for subsistence. The Russian nuclear agency took the Iran contract in 1995, and ever since, has expanded its economic relations with the Islamic republic.

“It’s a relationship that each side accepted because…they didn’t have any choice,” said Gary Sick, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University.

As Russia stabilized in the ‘90s, it repeatedly searched for a niche in foreign affairs, initially styling itself as a pro-Western democracy, then seeking strategic alliances with Beijing and New Delhi.

“That hasn’t really worked out,” said Holloway. “Now, Russia is seeking an independent policy—pursuing what they see as Russian national interests, with a somewhat more neutral position toward the West—and trying to build up their ties with Central Asia.”

“They don’t want to be seen as falling into the arms of the E.U. or the United States,” said Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy undersecretary for defense nuclear nonproliferation in the U.S. Department of Energy and the current director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders have perceived the West’s overtures as condescending and imperialist, brushing aside negotiations with Europe. The United States has no diplomatic relations with the Iranian government. But Russia, as a partner in trade and industry, cannot be dismissed so easily. In fact, they stand to gain from the relationship, both economically and politically.

“I see them essentially in a leadership role, where the United States and the E.U.-3, [Germany, France and the U.K.] must stand aside to see what they can do,” said Gottemoeller.

If relations between the West and Iran become yet more intractable, Russia will become more important on the international stage. “The Russians have some experience with what happens to revolutionary regimes,” said Holloway, “And there is a sense there that engaging with Iran is a better strategy than isolating them.”

The question now becomes whether the relationship between the two countries can survive the mounting tensions imposed by the international community.

“More and more, Russia is on the same wavelength with the E.U.-3 and the United States in seeing Iran as a real proliferation threat,” Gottemoeller said. “The Russians have begun to get really fed up.”

Originally published August 30, 2006


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