Amid ongoing tensions over Ukraine, it is worth noting that Russia continues to cooperate closely with the West over Iran. Far from using the Iran issue to retaliate against US and European sanctions, as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov ill-advisedly warned it might in mid-March, Russia has helped bolster the US position on the most sensitive aspect of the Iran negotiations: demands for cutbacks in the centrifuge programme.
The most interesting aspect of the negotiation round that took place in Vienna last week was when Russia, and then China, went out of their way to publicly call on Iran to adjust its position that it can accept no reduction of centrifuges. Rarely if ever in the negotiations had either country made press statements. Then, in an apparently coordinated fashion, both spoke to the press.
While China was seen as simply going along with Russia, the latter’s position infuriated and perplexed the Iranians. They had always been led to believe that Moscow did not care so much about the size of their nuclear programme, as long as it was transparent and strictly monitored. When Russia in both its bilateral meeting with Iran and then to journalists said Iran had to accept limits, the Iranians felt double-crossed. Through a contorted logic chain, they persuaded themselves that Moscow’s motivations were deeply Machiavellian.
As relayed by the well-connected Trita Parsi, Iranians became suspicious that because of the contretemps with the West over Ukraine, Russia is now less inclined to see a deal emerge with Iran. By taking a newly hardline position, Russia was thus making a deal more unlikely; in Iran’s eyes, sabotaging it in a subtle way so as to escape blame The presumed logic is that, if Russia had broken consensus with the West on the centrifuge numbers, the six powers would have recalibrated on the numbers issue and agreed a position that was more acceptable to Iran. By holding firm, Moscow broke up Tehran’s game plan.
As I see it, the circumstances are the opposite. By presenting a solid front on the most critical issue of the negotiations, Russia and China reinforced a message that Iran had best strike a deal now; it would not benefit by waiting in hopes of seeing cracks among the six powers and thus the prospect of a better deal.
Moscow’s motivations for maintaining consensus among the six powers are not altruistic, of course. Russia does not want to see another nuclear power emerge in an unsettled nearby region. There is also a commercial component. Russia wants to keep selling fuel to Iran for the Bushehr reactor after the initial ten-year supply agreement runs out in 2021. It long ago promised to supply fuel for the lifetime of the reactor.
Iran’s insistence on fuelling Bushehr with indigenous low-enriched uranium fuel post 2021 is unrealistic on both technical and safety grounds. Experts at the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran surely know this, but the negotiators are seizing upon every argument they can summon in order to bolster their position that Tehran has a ‘practical need’ for an industrial-scale enrichment plant. This bargaining tactic could backfire, however, because Russia is unlikely to complete a deal to build additional reactors at Bushehr if Iran is unwilling to extend the fuel-supply agreement.
In any case, Iran is apparently not eager right now to conclude additional nuclear-power-plant deals with Russia. Pragmatic Iranians would prefer Western nuclear technology, both as a means of strengthening relations and to diversify supply. This may be one reason that President Hassan Rouhani seemingly rebuffed two visit requests from his Russian counterpart.
Iranian access to Western nuclear technology will not be possible, of course, unless a comprehensive agreement is reached that lifts sanctions in this area. And a deal will not be possible unless Iran accepts cutbacks in its enrichment programme. With Iran insisting on keeping all 20,000 of its installed centrifuges and the six powers demanding about one-tenth of that number, no deal is currently in sight.
Mark Fitzpatrick is Director of the IISS Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme.