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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Building Cooperation, Preventing Proliferation

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In a recent confidential report that was leaked to the press, the International Atomic Energy Agency said that while Iran was guilty of breaching certain international safeguards, almost two years of inspections had uncovered no proof of any illicit weapons programs. Then, on Jan. 18, a day after U.S. President George W. Bush refused to rule out military action against Iran if it continued to attempt to build nuclear weapons, a number of Iranian officials declared that they would not be intimidated by U.S. threats.

These two events are two sides of the same coin. Russia is intimately involved in this important issue due to its agreement to share civilian nuclear technology with Tehran signed in August 1992, an agreement which has long profited both countries.

So what's wrong with an Iranian nuclear program? Why is the international community, especially the United States, so concerned? Why is the Iranian nuclear program so important to Russia, considering how intense U.S. pressure on Moscow remained in the 1990s and how strongly the United States demanded Russia end its nuclear cooperation with Iran? Will Iran ignore international nuclear safeguards and agreements and become the first Islamic nuclear power since Pakistan tested the bomb in May 1998? Will the international community succeed in persuading Tehran to abandon its presumed nuclear weapons drive and focus solely on civilian atomic energy?

Even top Iranian diplomats cannot give a definite answer to these questions. Last November, a senior Iranian diplomat, Ali Saltahni, spoke at the Carnegie Moscow Center and addressed why Iran needs a closed nuclear fuel cycle and uranium enrichment facilities. He pointed to Iran's demand for cheap energy and emphasized its right to construct nuclear power stations and manufacture its own fuel. In the heated discussion that ensued, Saltahni tried to calm his audience and stated that "very soon" Iran would sign a special agreement with Russia to return spent nuclear fuel from Bushehr's nuclear reactors, thus confirming his country's commitment to civilian nuclear energy.

Yet one small but very important problem with Tehran's nuclear program remains. The United States is convinced that Iran has an advanced nuclear military program and that Tehran has decided to build nuclear weapons. A Nov. 24 article in The New York Times referred to a CIA report that stated that the international network of nuclear black market dealers headed by the so-called father of the Pakistani bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, provided "significant assistance" to Iran, including "advanced" and "efficient" nuclear warhead designs. Thus, Washington believes that it is more important to stop Tehran than to negotiate.

There is some logic behind the United States' conclusion that Iran's nuclear program has hidden military goals. Iran says that it is building expensive nuclear energy facilities and developing a closed nuclear fuel cycle to satisfy its future demands for electricity. But uranium reserves in the country, as many in the West have pointed out, are scarce and less than 1 percent of its huge oil and gas reserves. Iran is home to the second-largest reserves of natural gas in the world. During oil production, Iran burns enough of the associated gas to produce what Western experts claim is the equivalent of four nuclear power plants the size of Bushehr. In this light, Tehran's nuclear energy program seems to be a cover for developing the bomb.

Thus, even with the long history of Russian-Iranian nuclear dialogue, there are some troubling questions to be asked of Russia's strategic energy partner. For the last several years, Iran has misinformed Moscow about the true size of its own nuclear program on several occasions. Moscow, as Iran's only partner, longs for more openness and frank information from Tehran. The question remains how Russian-Iranian relations in the nuclear sphere should proceed, as the United States and other Western partners regard Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran as a direct contribution to the development of weapons of mass destruction. Russia does not believe this to be true and does not see any grounds for stopping construction at Bushehr. Moreover, nuclear cooperation with Iran is very profitable for Moscow, in that it helps keep Russia's atomic power industry alive and brings in millions of dollars. Thus, Russia needs to separate the issue of possible nuclear weapons development from the question of the Bushehr nuclear power plant and communicate the crucial difference between the two to the world community.

Officials believe that Russia has every right to help Iran develop civilian nuclear energy and to encourage fruitful cooperation with its strategic energy partner. But Moscow should avoid the mistakes of the 1990s in its nuclear relations with Iran. And it should be strict and to the point with Iran in order to prevent a rift between Moscow and Washington over the Iranian nuclear program.

But while attempting to keep a reserved and careful attitude toward nuclear cooperation with Iran, we should not go to the other extreme, either. Today, the IAEA has all the necessary tools that will allow it to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the Iranian nuclear program, as well as engage in further monitoring. Russia should cooperate with the IAEA but should not push this specialized United Nations agency to make political statements that do not coincide with the conclusions of its nuclear inspectors. Moreover, now may not be the best time for the agency's report to be handed over to the Security Council.

In addition to working with international nuclear inspectors, Russia should actively cooperate with France, Germany, Britain and other European countries with longstanding traditions of dialogue with Iran. Finally, we must avoid putting extra pressure on Iran and be very careful not to disclose Israel's nuclear arsenal. Tehran might then rapidly abandon international treaties. This would undermine stability in the region and perhaps the rest of the world as well. This is a critical time for Iran to be held within the community of non-nuclear states to avoid a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. It is in Russia's interest to preempt a strike by either the United States or Israel, as well as to prevent the formation of an Islamic Nuclear Belt on its southern flank.

Vladimir Sotnikov is a research associate at the Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, and an independent expert on nuclear nonproliferation in South Asia and the Middle East. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.