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Russian Manipulation of Reactor Fuel Belies U.S. Iran Argument


In the stalemated talks between the six powers and Iran over the future of the latter’s nuclear programme, the central issue is not so much the technical aspects of the problem but the history of the Middle Eastern country’s relations with foreign suppliers – and especially with the Russians.

The Barack Obama administration has dismissed Iran’s claim that it can’t rely on the Russians or other past suppliers of enriched uranium for its future needs. But the U.S. position ignores a great deal of historical evidence that bolsters the Iranian case that it would be naïve to rely on promises by Russia and others on which it has depended in the past for nuclear fuel.

Both Iran and the P5+1 are citing the phrase “practical needs”, which was used in the Joint Plan of Action agreed to last November, in support of their conflicting positions on the issue of how much enrichment capability Iran should have. Limits on the Iranian programme are supposed to be consistent with such “practical needs”, according to the agreement.

Iran has argued that its “practical needs” include the capability to enrich uranium to make reactor fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant as well as future nuclear reactors. Iranian officials have indicated that Iran must be self-sufficient in the future with regard to nuclear fuel for Bushehr, which Russia now provides. It announced in 2008 that another reactor at Darkhovin, which is to be indigenously constructed, had entered the design stage.

Former senior State Department official on proliferation issues Robert Einhorn has transmitted the thinking of the Obama administration about the negotiations in recent months. In a long paper published in late March, he wrote that Iran had “sometimes made the argument that they need to produce enriched uranium indigenously because foreign suppliers could cut off supplies for political or other reasons.”

The Iranians had “even suggested,” Einhorn wrote, “that they could not depend on Russia to be a reliable supplier of enriched fuel.” This Iranian assertion ignores Russia’s defiance of the U.S. and is allies in having built Bushehr and insisting on exempting its completion and fuelling from U.N. Security Council sanctions, according to Einhorn.

Einhorn omits, however, the well-documented history of blatant Russian violations of its contract with Iran on Bushehr – including the provision of nuclear fuel – and its effort to use Iranian dependence on Russian reactor fuel to squeeze Iran on its nuclear policy as well as to obtain political-military concessions from the United States.

Rose Gottemoeller, now Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, described the dynamics of that Russian policy when she was director of the Carnegie Moscow Center from early 2006 through late 2008. She recounted in a 2008 paper how the Russians began working intensively in 2002 to get Iran to end its uranium enrichment programme.

That brought Russia’s policy aim in regard to Iran’s nuclear programme into line with that of the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009).

Russia negotiated an agreement with Iran in February 2005 to supply enriched uranium fuel for the reactor and to take back all spent fuel. Later in 2005, Moscow offered Iran a joint uranium enrichment venture in Russia under which Iran would send uranium to Russia for enrichment and conversion into fuel elements for future reactors.

But Iran would not gain access to the fuel fabrication technology, which made it unacceptable to Tehran but was strongly supported by the Bush administration.

Bush administration officials then began to dangle the prospect of a bilateral agreement on nuclear cooperation – a “123 Agreement” – before Russia as a means of leveraging a shift in Russian policy toward cutting off nuclear fuel for Bushehr. The Russians agreed to negotiate such a deal, which was understood to be conditional on Russia’s cooperation on the Iran nuclear issue, with particular emphasis on fuel supplies for Bushehr.

The Russians were already using their leverage over Iran’s nuclear programme by slowing down the work as the project approached completion.

A U.S. diplomatic cable dated Jul. 6, 2006 and released by WikiLeaks reported that Russ Clark, an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safety official who had spent time studying the Bushehr project, said in a conversation with a U.S. diplomat, “[H]e almost feels sorry for the Iranians because of the way the Russians are ‘jerking them around’.”

Clark said the Russians were “dragging their feet” about completing work on Bushehr and suggested it was for political reasons.

The IAEA official said it was obvious that the Russians were delaying the fuel shipments to Bushehr because of “political considerations,” calculating that, once they delivered the fuel, Russia would lose much of its leverage over Iran.

In late September 2006, the Russians changed the date on which they pledged to provide the reactor fuel to March 2007, in anticipation of completion of the reactor in September, in an agreement between the head of Russia’s state-run company Atomstroyexport, and the vice-president of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.

But in March 2007, the Russians announced that the fuel delivery would be delayed again, claiming Iran had fallen behind on its payments. Iran, however, heatedly denied that claim and accused Moscow of “politicising” the issue.

In fact, Russia, with U.S. encouragement, was “slow rolling out the supply of enriched uranium fuel,” according to Gottemoeller. Moscow was making clear privately, she wrote, that it was holding back on the fuel to pressure Iran on its enrichment policy.

Moscow finally began delivering reactor fuel to Bushehr in December 2007, apparently in response to the Bush administration’s plan to put anti-missile systems into the Czech Republic and Poland. That decision crossed what Moscow had established as a “red line”.

Obama’s election in November 2008, however, opened a new dynamic in U.S.-Russia cooperation on squeezing Iran’s nuclear programme. Within days of Obama’s cancellation of the Bush administration decision to establish anti-missile sites in Central Europe in September 2009, Russian officials leaked to the Moscow newspaper Kommersant that it was withholding its delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems for which it had already contracted with Iran.

Iran needed the missiles to deter U.S. and Israeli air attacks, so the threat to renege on the deal was again aimed at enhancing Russian leverage on Iran to freeze its uranium enrichment programme, while giving Moscow additional influence on U.S. Russian policy as well.

The Russian attempt to exploit Iran’s dependence on Moscow for its reactor fuel for political purposes was not the first time that Iran had learned the lesson that it could not rely on foreign sources of enriched uranium – even when they had legal commitments to provide the fuel for Iran’s nuclear reactor.

After the Islamic revolution against the Shah in 1979, all of the foreign suppliers on which Iran had expected to rely for nuclear fuel for Bushehr and its Tehran Research Reactor reneged on their commitments.

Iran’s permanent representative to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, sent an official communication to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano on Mar. 1, 2010, stating that specific contracts with U.S., German, French and multinational companies for supply of nuclear fuel had been abruptly terminated under pressure from the U.S. government and its allies.

Soltanieh said they were “examples [of] the root cause of confidence deficit vis-à-vis some Western countries regarding the assurance of nuclear supply.”
The earlier experiences led Iran to decide around 1985 to seek its own indigenous enrichment capability, according to Iranian officials.

The experience with Russia, especially after 2002, hardened Iran’s determination to be self-reliant in nuclear fuel fabrication. The IAEA’s Clark told the U.S. diplomat in mid-2006 that, if the Russians did cut off their supply of fuel for Bushehr, the Iranians were prepared to make the fuel themselves.

It is not clear whether the Obama administration actually believes the official line that Iran should and must rely on Russia for nuclear fuel. But the history surrounding the issue suggests that Iran will not accept the solution on which the U.S. and its allies are now insisting.

Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book “Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare”, was published Feb. 14.

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