March 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian media this week scrambled to deny Western reports that Moscow had threatened to withhold nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless Tehran complies with demands to suspend enrichment activities.
What they couldn't deny was the fact that Russian specialists working on the nearly completed plant had begun to leave Iran. The Russian Atomic Energy Ministry described the exodus as a "planned workforce rotation," but elsewhere in Moscow officials were confirming that talks with Iran on the final stages of Bushehr were "on pause."
Never To Be Completed?
Some experts doubt the talks will ever resume. Among them is Vyacheslav Nikonov, the pro-Kremlin head of the Politika think tank. Iran's intransigence on the nuclear issue, he said, gave reason to suspect the Islamic republic was working to construct a weapons arsenal.
"Under such circumstances," Nikonov said, "any supply of nuclear fuel to launch the Bushehr station is impossible."
The Security Council is now expected to vote on March 24 on a draft resolution that would tighten sanctions on Iranian arms exports and impose an assets freeze on people and organizations involved in Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Russia and China, who in the past could be expected to exercise their veto right during such a vote, this week rejected a proposal by a nonpermanent member, South Africa, to suspend sanctions for 90 days.
So what caused Russia to make the shift? Aleksei Pushkov, a political commentator with TV-Tsentr and a member of Russia's influential Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, laid out three likely arguments for the Kremlin's apparent abandonment of its nuclear cooperation with Iran on his March 17 "Postscriptum" program:
- First, he said, the Kremlin has decided that there is a limit to how for it will go to support Iran, especially as the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush appears to grow ever more in favor of military action. If Iran fails to comply, and Bush insists on his position, Pushkov said, Moscow can say it did everything possible to alter events and then "wash its hands" of the affair.
- Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to show that he has broken free of the Cold War mindset that "what is bad for Washington is good for Moscow." Instead, Pushkov said, his logic is that "the U.S. military instinct should be contained, but not at the price of a major conflict with the United States."
- Finally, Pushkov said, Russia wants to send a message to fellow Security Council members that it, too, believes a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. At the same time he says, "unacceptable" to Moscow is not the same as "unacceptable" to Washington. The Kremlin line is that Iran may still manage to become a nuclear state, and the world should prepare to accept such an eventuality, rather than devise a military solution to prevent it.
So why did the Kremlin suddenly soften its stance on Iran? Perhaps, Pushkov argued, Putin felt he had enough areas of conflict with the United States. Between the U.S. missile-defense proposal for Central Europe, and growing support in Washington for Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, there is plenty for the two countries to clash on without throwing Iran into the mix.
Still, Pushkov called for greater "finesse" in dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue. It is unseemly, he said, for the Kremlin to simply roll over and accept the U.S. line.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, addressing the State Duma on March 21, appeared to share his concern. He stoutly denied any connection between the "pause" at Bushehr and the imminent Security Council vote. Moreover, he added, Russia would not support "excessive" sanctions against Iran.
What most observers agree on is that the original justification -- Iran's failure to pay its bills -- was implausible at best. Iran has plenty of funds with which to pay Russia, and Russia has more than enough money to proceed with Bushehr. Perhaps, for the Kremlin, the project has simply lost its economic attractiveness.
When Russia signed the Bushehr contract with Iran in 1995, the Russian nuclear sector was in desperate need of money; a single $1 billion contract was enough to keep the decaying industry afloat. Since that time, Russia's financial outlook has changed dramatically. The country is flush with petrodollars, and the nuclear sector now has construction contracts with China, India, Bulgaria, Vietnam, and Cuba, and is negotiating with Morocco and South Africa. Russia's adoption of a $60 billion program to reconstruct its own nuclear power industry is testament to the fact that funding is no longer a pressing concern.
Bushehr remains, however, an issue of image and prestige. Russia cares about its commercial reputation, and is not eager to make a callous display of its withdrawal from Iran. Moscow is also interested in preserving its political reputation within the Islamic world.
In the end, those who predicted that relations with the United States remain more important for Russia than those with Iran may be right. Not everyone in Russia is pleased, however. The "Vek" daily, which has ties to the Atomic Energy Ministry, does not conceal its disappointment. "Russia gave up Iran," it writes. "For 10 years, Moscow bought the time that Tehran needed to weaken U.S. influence in the Gulf. And now Moscow itself is imposing sanctions before the United Nations even gets a chance."