Russia, which is in the final stages of building an $800 million nuclear power plant for Iran at Bushehr, has always upheld Tehran’s right to civilian nuclear technology.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said on numerous occasions that Moscow will not support referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council for possible international sanctions for pursuing a nuclear program the United States says is aimed at developing atomic weapons.
But that was before Iran announced its intention to resume uranium enrichment -- a diplomatic slap in the face to the IAEA and the European Union, which had offered Tehran political and trade incentives to permanently drop the program.
This places Russia in an almost impossible situation. Up to now, Moscow felt it could risk damaging its relations with the United States over Iran. But it cannot risk its relations with both America and Europe, as Aleksei Malashenko of Moscow’s Carnegie Center told RFE/RL. And that puts Moscow’s twin objectives -- commercial and diplomatic ties with both Europe and Iran -- at risk.
"There are two main goals here. And these two main goals contradict each other. The first one is of course maintaining cooperation with Iran while at the same time ensuring that this cooperation does not spoil Moscow's image in Europe. So, it's going to be very hard to achieve, but I think Moscow will try," Malashenko said.
Relations between Moscow and the European Union have worsened in recent months. They hit a new low after Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, whose success was helped by Europe’s diplomatic intervention. They risk once again being upset by Poland’s diplomatic war with Kremlin-allied Belarus.
Malashenko said Moscow’s public criticism of Iran is an attempt to show the West that Russia remains interested in cooperation. "I would place this Russian statement in the context of Russia's overall [foreign] policy," he said. "What do I mean? The fact is that in recent months there has been a rather noticeable divergence in Russia's foreign policy and the foreign policy of the West, of the United States. So I think Russia doesn't want to spoil those relations -- above all with the Europeans. And so Russia found it necessary, and in this particular situation very appropriate, to express its complete solidarity with the Europeans, which is what was done."
Economically, if Russia is forced to pick between cooperating with the European Union or with Iran, the choice is obvious, according to Stephan de Spiegeleire, a Russia analyst at the Clingendael Center for Strategic Studies in The Hague. That calculation is sure to have influenced Moscow, he told RFE/RL.
"In this particular instance, I think a tactical choice was made on Iran, that at this particular juncture, it's better to keep cooperating within the IAEA, to get some 'brownie points' also from the European Union, which of course is much more important to Russia than Iran. The trade relationship between Iran and Russia is about $2 billion a year. [The trade relationship] between Russia and the European Union is $100 billion a year. So of course, the economic interests at stake here are very different," de Spiegeleire said.
Nevertheless, Carnegie's Malashenko said, Russia will do everything it can to ensure it doesn’t have to choose one over the other. He said the best outcome for Moscow would be for Iran to stop its reprocessing program and resume cooperating with Europe. That would ensure the Bushehr plant is completed and Russia and Iran's financially advantageous bilateral nuclear cooperation can continue.
In February, Russia’s Federal Atomic Energy Agency signed a multiyear agreement on supplying the plant with nuclear fuel. Under the deal, Iran will return spent fuel to Russia for suitable disposal. As Malashenko notes, Russia is depending on the deal going through.
"I think that if Iran is going to observe all the demands put forward by Europe and the IAEA, then Iran's [nuclear] cooperation with Russia is covered politically," he said. "There will be no problems and Russia will not be saddled with all of these accusations."
Currently, the IAEA is meeting in emergency session in Vienna to consider its options. What will Russia’s reaction be if the IAEA eventually decides to refer the case to the UN Security Council? "It's very hard to say. I think that above all, Russia does not want it to get to this point," Malashenko told RFE/RL. "In this case, Russia will make the maximum effort to ensure this does not happen because if this is handed to the Security Council, the Russian question will once again be raised, in terms of what types of cooperation [with Iran] have been taking place. Therefore, I think Russia's task is not to allow this to happen.
Unlike the other nations on the Security Council, Russia may be the only permanent member with the leverage to make Iran cooperate with the international community -- precisely because of the unfinished Bushehr plant.
Experts, however, see the chances of UN sanctions ever being imposed as minimal. China, another permanent Security Council member, has not made any official statements on the case.
China’s trade with Iran has been rising steadily, as Beijing’s energy needs mushroom. Bilateral trade was worth $7 billion last year. Recently, the two countries signed long-term oil and gas deals worth at an estimated $100 billion -- something China is unlikely to want to jeopardize.
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