July 12, 2005

IRANIAN NUCLEAR TEAM IN MOSCOW, SEEKING NEW PARTNERSHIPS

IRANIAN NUCLEAR TEAM IN MOSCOW, SEEKING NEW PARTNERSHIPS

Senior Iranian officials have indicated that Russia could become a partner in lucrative projects to build 20 nuclear power stations in Iran. "A plan has been approved in parliament obliging the government to study the possibility of building 20 nuclear power stations. Many countries, including Russia, could participate," Kazem Jalali, head of the Iranian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, announced in Moscow. Jalali, heading the Iran-Russia Parliamentary Friendship Group on an official visit to Russia, made the remarks at a meeting with Alexander Rumyantsev, head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom). Jalali told Russian officials that Iran still intends to produce its own fuel (IRNA, July 9).

In February 2005, Russia and Iran signed a nuclear fuel supply agreement under which Iran has to return spent nuclear fuel from the reactor. Tehran finally agreed to sign the deal after extended disputes (see EDM, March 3).

Meeting with Jalali, Boris Gryzlov, speaker of the Russian State Duma, urged expanded cooperation with Iran. He also hailed bilateral ties as "profound and stable," adding that Iran's participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as an observer was of "high importance." Iran attaches special significance to Russia's role in international developments, Jalali noted.

Another visiting Iranian official also advocated expanding nuclear ties with Russia. Iran intends to continue cooperation with Russia in nuclear energy, Mohammad Khoshchehreh, an aide to president-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, announced in Moscow. "There are no concerns that Russia might be ousted from the Iranian market." Iran is satisfied with how Russian specialists are building the Bushehr nuclear power plant, he added (Interfax, July 8). Khoshchehreh visited Moscow for talks on continued nuclear cooperation and also to meet with Russia's top nuclear official, Rumyantsev.

However, some Russian experts seem to think otherwise. Russia is too slow in helping to develop the Iranian nuclear energy sector, according to Rajab Safarov, head of the Modern Iranian Studies Center, a Moscow-based think tank seen as close to Tehran's interests. "If Russia does not launch Bushehr in 2006, Western companies could push Russia out of the Iranian power industry market," he warned (Interfax, June 28).

Tehran's hints that Russia could join projects to build 20 nuclear power stations, coupled with warnings from pro-Iranian experts, are seen as Tehran's strategy to nudge Russia to intensify nuclear cooperation with Iran.

Moscow is yet to comment on Iran's 20 nuclear power station concept. However, a number of Russian officials have indicated that Russia looks forward to boosting nuclear ties with Iran. Most recently, Sergei Stepashin, head of the Russian Audit Chamber, the country's financial watchdog, said Russia was interested in building more units at Bushehr. "While visiting the first unit of the Bushehr nuclear power plant being built by Russian specialists, Russian and Iranian officials discussed whether Russia would take part in the construction of the second, third, and fourth units," Stepashin said, adding that "Russia is prepared for and genuinely interested in this" (RIA-Novosti, July 5).

Last month, Rosatom head Rumyantsev reiterated that Russia wanted to bid for contracts to build more reactors in Iran. "When Tehran announces new tenders to construct nuclear reactors, we'll take part in them," he said on June 29. "Tehran plans to build another six nuclear reactors," he claimed.

Rumyantsev's comments followed Russian President Vladimir Putin's remarks that his country would continue its nuclear cooperation with Iran after Ahmadinejad's election. "We are ready to continue cooperation with Iran in the atomic energy sector, while taking into account our international obligations in the area of non-proliferation, [and] to cooperate on finding a mutually acceptable political solution to existing questions," Putin said last month. Ahmadinejad reportedly indicated plans to continue the nuclear program.

Moscow has insisted that Russia's cooperation with Iran is conditional on the transparency of Tehran's policies, its respect of IAEA decisions, and its renunciation of any nuclear military program. Moreover, the Kremlin remains keen to strengthen its partnership with Tehran. Last February, President Putin at a meeting in Moscow with visiting Iranian Secretary of the Iranian National Security Council, Hasan Rouhani, reiterated his readiness to develop cooperation with Iran. Putin also accepted an invitation to visit Tehran later this year.

In the meantime, Moscow still hopes to overcome American objections to nuclear ties with Iran. According to a commentary by the Russian official news agency RIA-Novosti, "Moscow helps Tehran develop its civilian nuclear power sector, and U.S. criticism of Moscow has recently come to a halt, because Washington knows only too well that, because of its proximity to Iran, Russia is much more interested in keeping Tehran away from nuclear weapons than the U.S. and even Europe" (RIA-Novosti, July 8). However, it remains to be seen whether Russia's potentially massive involvement in the Iranian nuclear sector could be tolerated internationally.

--Sergei Blagov

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