Iran, Russia to Discuss Plan for Resuming Atomic Dialogue

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A senior Russian official is set on Monday to discuss with Iranian leaders a blueprint for rekindling multilateral dialogue over the Middle Eastern nation’s atomic activities, Reuters reported (see GSN, Aug. 12).

Presidential Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev, who is expected to meet in Tehran with his Iranian equivalent as well as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would discuss Moscow’s proposal for addressing U.S. and European concerns that the Persian Gulf nation’s atomic efforts are geared toward weapons development (see GSN, July 14). Iran, which has maintained its nuclear ambitions are purely nonmilitary in nature, most recently joined discussions with the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany in January; the meeting yielded little progress on the atomic issue (see GSN, Jan. 24).

Iran might prove more open to a Russian proposal over its nuclear program than one put forward by Western powers, according to Reuters. Though Russia last year endorsed a fourth U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran, Moscow has voiced its stance against the potential use of armed force against the country, as well as the enactment of independent penalties by European nations and the United States.

“It’s certainly easier for Iran to respond to a Russian gambit than to Western pressure. The [P-5+1] negotiating efforts with Iran are stuck dead in the water,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation specialist with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “If Russia’s plan can get Iran to the negotiating table, then great. Talks have to start somehow.”

Iran’s uranium enrichment program is a probable subject of potential new multilateral talks, according to Reuters. Tehran in June announced plans to move its manufacturing of 20 percent-enriched uranium to its hardened Qum facility and to boost generation of the material by threefold; the higher enrichment level could help Tehran more quickly produce nuclear-weapon material, which must be refined to around 90 percent (see GSN, June 8).

“Iran will try to persuade Russia and China to accept its precondition of accepting its right to enrichment before sitting down at the table,” Fitzpatrick said. “Russia and China don’t see eye-to-eye with the U.S. and the Europeans, and … Iran will seek to exploit the differences.”

Russian-Iranian ties are further strengthened by projects that Russian firms have carried out on Tehran’s behalf, added Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist with the University of Hawaii.

“Russia has maintained a longstanding relationship with Iran, effectively it is a partner in Iran’s nuclear program through its construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant, and has never shown the slightest ambition of changing the government of Iran,” Farhi said.

Still, Russia’s proposal on the nuclear dispute lacks originality and might previously have had a better chance of succeeding, he said. The proposal calls for Iran to gradually address international concerns about its atomic activities. In return, economic penalties targeting the Middle Eastern state would over time be drawn down.

“Tying Iran’s step-by-step moves to reduction of sanctions is something that has not worked and it works even less now that so many sanctions against Iran are unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. Congress and cannot be negotiated by representatives of executive branches in both countries,” Farhi said.

In addition, setbacks in the Russian-backed Bushehr plant’s completion have increasingly aggravated Iran’s government.

“I can imagine that there are some real technical problems, but also since this is the only means now at Russia’s disposal to influence Iran maybe Russia is trying to push Iran toward a more constructive position by finding new ‘technical problems,'” said Fyodor Lukyanov, who edits the journal Russia in Global Affairs(Robin Pomeroy, Reuters, Aug. 14).

The nuclear plant would become functional by the end of this month if vetting wraps up, the Islamic Republic News Agency quoted Iranian Atomic Energy Organization head Fereidoun Abbasi as saying on Sunday (Islamic Republic News Agency, Aug. 14).

“The reactor will reach its 40 percent of its power in mid-Ramadan (mid-August) and will be connected to the grid but the celebration of this connection will be held at the end of Ramadan,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in remarks reported on Saturday by Iran’s Mehr News Agency (Mehr News Agency, Aug. 13).

Meanwhile, an Iranian statement challenges the International Atomic Energy Agency’s assertion that the nation is not sufficiently supporting supervision of its nuclear activities, the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington said on Friday.

“Reporting so many technical details proves that the agency has the full access to all nuclear material and facilities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. … Therefore, claiming that ‘Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation’ is incorrect and misleading,” Iran said in the statement to the U.N. nuclear agency, which responds to concerns raised in an IAEA safeguards report issued in May.

Data included in the IAEA report, though, is necessary due to Iran’s “lack of cooperation,” including its admitted plans to build new, undeclared uranium enrichment facilities, according to an ISIS analysis. The agency’s assertion that Iran is “not providing the necessary cooperation” refers to Tehran’s refusal to comply with the IAEA Additional Protocol, which would allow closer scrutiny of nuclear operations (Institute for Science and International Security release, Aug. 12).

Separately, ISIS head David Albright questioned the credibility of assertions about Iran’s atomic activities issued by the Iranian resistance group People’s Mujahedeen, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.

“I can no more trust their information,” Albright said. “It is like a barrage they are throwing up, making all of these accusations. That highly enriched uranium came from Pakistan. That there are two enrichment projects that are active. That bomb designs came from [Pakistani nuclear scientist and proliferator] A.Q. Khan. There is not a single bit of evidence that has been offered to back any of this” (Fars News Agency, Aug. 13).

Elsewhere, Iran has announced plans to bolster protection of its atomic specialists, United Press International reported (see GSN, Aug. 2).

The statement by Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi signaled for the first time a number of initiatives the nation is preparing in an effort to guard its atomic personnel, according to the Hebrew-language newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth. It reported that four scientists with connections to Iranian atomic activities have been killed in the last two years (United Press International, Aug. 14).

In Israel, Chinese People’s Liberation Army General Staff head Gen. Chen Bingde arrived on Sunday for talks in which Jerusalem was set to potentially air concerns over Iran’s atomic and missile activities, the Associated Press reported (Daniel Estrin, Associated Press/CBS News, Aug. 14).