The proliferation danger posed by Iran is likely to be a major topic of discussion when President George W. Bush meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Bratislava later this week.
In light of Russia's extensive involvement in the Iranian nuclear program, any efforts to persuade Moscow to disengage are likely to fail. And while nuclear cooperation could be the most important aspect of Iran's relationship with Russia, that relationship is multifaceted and complex.
The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Director of Central Intelligence Porter Goss told the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in testimony on 16 February, is one of the most pressing challenges currently facing the United States. Goss went on to mention Iran's pursuit of a nuclear capability in this context.
Another intelligence-community leader, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Director Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, said in his Congressional testimony that Russia bears some responsibility for proliferation, not least in the case of Iran. Jacoby charged that Iran wants a nuclear-weapon capability because it wants to become the "dominant regional power" and it wants to deter a possible U.S. or Israeli attack. "We judge Iran is devoting significant resources to its weapons of mass destruction [WMD] and ballistic-missile programs," Jacoby alleged, adding that Iran will be able to produce nuclear weapons "early in the next decade." Jacoby also predicted that Iran would be able to manufacture an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015 and that it would either develop or import a land-attack cruise missile within a decade.
President Bush discussed the importance of diplomacy in resolving the proliferation problem in a series of 18 February interviews with European television stations, according to the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs website (http://usinfo.state.gov). He told France's TV3 that France, Germany, Great Britain, and the United States must work together to convince Iran that they do not want it to have a nuclear weapon, and they must work together to make other countries aware of this stance. "I think President Putin understands that the Iranians shouldn't have [a nuclear] weapon. I'm convinced, again, if the Iranians hear us loud and clear, without any wavering, that they will make the rational decision."
As a presumably rational decision-maker, one must assume that Putin is reluctant to see Iran develop a nuclear-weapons capacity. Nevertheless, according to the DIA's Jacoby, the Russian government or Russian entities "sell WMD and missile technologies for revenue and diplomatic influence" and "[continue] to support missile programs and civil nuclear projects in...Iran." Jacoby added that "some of the civil nuclear projects can have weapons applications."
Bush will be hard-pressed to persuade Putin to disengage from the Iranian nuclear program. Russia is heavily involved in building a nuclear power plant in the southwestern Iranian city of Bushehr. The Bushehr project is worth approximately $800 million to Russia, and Russia also will profit from the provision of fresh fuel and the reprocessing of spent fuel. The Iranian nuclear sector also is a source of employment for Russian scientists and technicians, and Russian universities train Iranian specialists. Putin said after meeting with Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani in Moscow on 18 February, "Iran's latest actions convince us that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons, and it means that we will continue our cooperation in all areas, including in nuclear power generation," RFE/RL reported.
The View From Tehran
From the Iranian perspective, the relationship with Russia is important in at least five ways. First, Russia is willing to cooperate openly with the Iranian nuclear program. For all Iran's claims of self-sufficiency and indigenous know-how, Iran still depends on overt and covert foreign assistance. Tehran has expressed an interest in having Russia build more reactors. Second, Russia serves as a counterbalance to the United States, which Iran regards as an enemy, and Europe, which Iran sees as a lukewarm ally. Tehran depends on Moscow's vote in international forums like the UN Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors. Third, Tehran sees itself and Russia as the two major Caspian Sea powers. Iran is adamant that it is entitled to 20 percent of that sea's resources, although it has less than 14 percent of the shoreline. Although the other littoral states have entered bilateral agreements regarding the Caspian Sea, Iran has not done so.
Fourth, Russia is a vibrant market for Iranian goods and a reliable trading partner. This is particularly important for the Iranian military, which is equipped with Russian aircraft, submarines, tanks, and other equipment. Russian firms are involved in the Iranian energy sector, too. Finally, Russia is a source of expertise in other, more exotic areas, including Iran's desire to have a satellite. The two sides signed a $132 million contract for the design, testing, and launch of the Zohreh satellite on 30 January.
But Tehran is willing to pressure Moscow, and it is no coincidence that Rohani's visit to Moscow preceded the Bush-Putin summit. Rohani twisted the screws a bit after his trip to Moscow, saying on 19 February, "We expect Russians to be one step ahead of Europeans, but they always follow the dominant trend in the IAEA Board of Governors," the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported.
Bush and Putin are scheduled to have a 2 1/2-hour private meeting on 24 February, "The Washington Post" reported on 20 February. This could provide an opportunity for the U.S. president to urge his Russian counterpart to be more responsive to international concerns about Iran's nuclear program.
Putin is unlikely to satisfy any such request, although diplomatic boilerplate will disguise any serious disagreement. And that will be welcome news in Tehran.