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Why Russia Likes the Nuclear Dispute Just the Way it is

August 15, 2014
Roland Elliott Brown
8 min read
Professor Mark N. Katz, Mason University
Professor Mark N. Katz, Mason University
The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant
The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant
The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant
The Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant

Iran and the P5+1 group have postponed their deadline for a nuclear agreement until November, but Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei may have helped see the talks to early collapse this week by commenting that negotiations with the U.S. had been “useless.” At least one member of the P5 may sympathize. Russia, too, mistrusts the United States, and has tended to see its position on the Iranian nuclear program as disingenuous. Russia supports the process, but it is also sympathetic towards Iran, whose program it helped to build.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia helped Iran to develop the nuclear energy program left dormant from the days of the Shah. As the United States began to raise concerns, Russia sought to address them through a nominally secret agreement in 1995. But when Vladimir Putin came to office in 2000, he overturned it. Russia’s true attitude to the Iranian program remains unclear. While Russia ostensibly aims to end the dispute, it has also just signed an oil deal that will help Iran evade further sanctions. Iran, meanwhile, continues to press Russia for assistance with new civilian reactors.

Professor Mark N. Katz of George Mason University, who has written extensively on the Russia-Iran relationship, spoke to IranWire about how the nuclear issue shapes the two countries’ relationship.


When did Iran first look to Moscow as a nuclear partner?

During the Shah’s time, a reactor was being built at Bushehr by the West Germans, and they stopped work after the revolution, as Iran’s relations with the West deteriorated. It just sat there. Relations between Iran and the Soviet Union improved in the late Mikhail Gorbachev era, but it was under Boris Yeltsin that the Russians agreed to complete the reactor for the Iranians. Of course, it ended up taking far longer than anticipated, and the Iranians were very unhappy.


What caused Russia to take an interest in developing the Iranian program?

There was one strong interest, and that was the old Soviet nuclear power industry. After the Chernobyl disaster, they were having a very difficult time selling their reactors, not just abroad, but even in Russia itself. Russia was undergoing economic problems, and there wasn’t a market. The Russian atomic energy industry literally saw a deal with Iran as essential to preserve that industry.


Was there an illicit dimension to the know-how and equipment that was being traded to Iran in the 1990s?

It appears that there were a number of Russian scientists and engineers—and it’s not clear if it was in collaboration with the Russian government or just on their own—but they ended up working in the Iranian nuclear program. These people were desperate because they had no work.

The whole Russian scientific establishment had been subsidized under the Soviets and had all kinds of special treatment. In the 1990s, all this ended. There was an American program to give work to these people just so they wouldn’t end up working for Saddam Hussein or North Korea. But some of them did, and some of them did go to Iran.


What objections did other countries raise at the time?

There was criticism from the West in particular, and from various Middle Eastern states that don’t have good relations with Iran—which is most of them—that the Iranians wanted a nuclear weapon. But the Russians defended the Iranian program, and even accused the U.S. of objecting to Russian work on the program not on national security grounds, but simply on commercial grounds, that what Washington wanted was eventually to get this business for American firms.

Also, in the mid 1990s, with Russia’s assertion of a more nationalist foreign policy under Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, [the Russian view was that] America and the West didn’t want Russia to do this—therefore Russia was going to do it. Russia didn’t want to be seen as knuckling under to the West, and it wanted the money.


What did the 1995 agreement on U.S.-Russian cooperation signed by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin mean for Iran?

It was supposedly a secret agreement. The Russians wanted it to be secret because they didn’t want to acknowledge that they had agreed to limit Russian assistance because that was a limitation to their sovereignty. But everyone knew that the general terms were that the Russians would give no further assistance—military assistance, nuclear assistance—to Iran. But what does “further” mean? Work in progress was acceptable, but the question was what was actually in progress at the time.

It’s not clear that the Russians intended to abide by it. They wanted cooperation with the U.S., so they had to sign it, but they resented it. They seemed to want to have it both ways. The Iranian media pointed out over and over again that Russia would sell Iran out for the right price to America. Work on the Bushehr reactor slowed down in this period. Then, in October 2000, the new President Vladimir Putin abrogated the agreement.


What motivated Putin to do that?

The Russians ran up against the limits of how far they could get away with fudging the 1995 agreement. The excuse Putin seized on was that Al Gore, during the presidential campaign that year, had referred to the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement. Putin’s argument was “You didn’t keep your end of the deal by keeping it secret, so we’re not abiding by this any more.”

This led to a spasm of increased Russian-Iranian cooperation. For Putin it was a win-win situation. They wanted to do more business with the Iranians, and Putin liked the idea of publicly defying the Americans. There were announcements of weapons deals, and in March 2001, President Khatami visited Russia.


Did a moment come when the Russian leadership realized it had underestimated Iran’s nuclear program?

It’s not entirely clear to me that that moment has arisen. All along, they have felt that the Americans have over-estimated what the Iranians were capable of. Partly it’s because the Russians just don’t view the Iranians as very clever. The other attitude they have is “Well, even if the Iranians do acquire nuclear weapons, why is this so bad? Why is this worse than Pakistan, which seems to have less internal control than Iran does, acquiring a nuclear weapon?” They [believe that if] the Americans accept a nuclear Pakistan, and a nuclear Iran comes along, the Americans will have no choice but to accept it as well. I think they’re right about that.


Why has Russia backed Security Council resolutions against Iran that it could have vetoed?

Putin in particular has come up with what he thought were solutions for the Iranian nuclear crisis. These have involved Russia enriching Iranian uranium to commercial grade. The Iranian response has always been “We reserve the right to enrich some of our own uranium,” and that’s what the West doesn’t want.

Putin has made this offer in various forms over the years and the Iranians have rejected it. That has annoyed Putin, and it’s when they reject his ideas that he seems to vote in favor of these resolutions. It’s punishment for not going along with his proposals.


To what extent have Russia’s clashes with the West—for example over Ukraine—influenced its behavior in nuclear negotiations?

There have been some statements that with Ukraine, one way Russia could retaliate would be to destroy the nuclear negotiations with Iran. It’s not clear that Russia is in a position to do that. We have these P5+1 negotiations with Iran, but it’s not as if Iran is negotiating equally with all six of these governments. This is really an Iranian-American negotiation. For Iran’s sake, it looks nicer if they’re negotiating with the P5+1. But if Iran and the U.S. can make a deal, and Russia objects, well so what? They’ll make the deal anyway.


Russia doesn’t seem keen either to see Iran build a nuclear weapon, or to improve its relations with the West. What hope does it have of sustaining the status quo?

For them the ideal situation is that Iran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons, but it maintains hostile relations with the West. Sooner or later, one of those aims is going to fail. It’s even conceivable—but not so likely—that both could happen. What they want in many parts of the world is for conflicts not to be resolved, but they don’t want them to boil over into war. The fact that people are at odds with each other gives them leverage, but once actual conflict takes place, Russia is not necessarily willing or able to do much.

They’re irritated with Washington for pressing them to be tough with Iran on the nuclear issue, because if they are too tough, and Iran gets really angry, they might have something to lose. Iran could improve relations with the West—that’s one direction it could go—but there’s another direction it could go, and that’s a far more hostile regime than we see now, one that’s not just hostile to the West, but hostile to Russia, and they don’t want that at all.

They see Washington, and President Barack Obama in particular, as duplicitous. Obama came into office in 2009 and announced that he wanted to improve relations with Iran, and he wanted to improve relations with Russia. He cited a very specific reason for wanting to improve relations with Russia: so that he could get Russia’s help on the Iranian nuclear issue. So what is it that Moscow heard? “Oh, you want us to worsen Russia’s relations with Iran by pressing it on the nuclear issue so that you in Washington can improve its relations with Iran? No! We’re not that stupid!’” The Russians think in worst-case terms.


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