Iran in Nuclear Landscape of Wider Middle East and in Euro-Atlantic Relations

by Nadia Arbatova, Head of the Department of European Studies, Institute of World Economy and International

Relations (IMEMO), Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russia


I. Wider Middle East is a broad geopolitical space embracing several sub-regions with common elements - presence of Islamic population; presence of open or latent conflicts, and a special role of the oil factor. Globalisation of terrorism and proliferation of WMD have highlighted the importance of Wider Middle East in terms of the international security. Given their common strategic interests, one would think that Russia, the EU countries and the US are bound to cooperate in this area. True, the fundamentals for cooperation are really sound. Yet, cooperation is not inevitable. Moreover under the worst scenario Wider Middle East could produce new bones of contention. This can be referred not only to Russia’s relations with the EU and the US but to Euro-Atlantic relations as well.


II. Undoubtedly, the core of Wider Middle East is the Middle East/ Persian Gulf region. So, my analysis will be focused on this area which still remains one of the most dangerous regions in terms of nuclear proliferation. Here we see the violation of the regime of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons or existence of a number of factors contributing to the risk of proliferation.

What are these factors?


First, there exists in this region one of the three officially undeclared nuclear states – Israel.

Second, here we see one of the most serious unresolved conflicts - Arab-Israeli conflict. Apart from this, many regional Moslem states have troubled or conflicting relations.

Third, this region is well known as a strong hold of international terrorism.

Fourth, this region attracts conflicting and interlacing strategic interests of global actors.

Fifth, some of the regional states like Libya had nuclear military programs in the past or others like Iran are under suspicion of having such programs.

Sixth, there is a broad industrial and scientific infrastructure, including nuclear power or research reactors in this region.


III. There can be singled out three types of challenges related to nuclear proliferation in the region.


The first type is the so-called latent proliferation when a state officially is part of NPT regime but tacitly develops military nuclear programmes enabling to build nuclear weapons. Or there is another possibility to legally develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes which gives them partial control over their nuclear fuel cycles.


The second type is the so-called first-tier proliferation when nuclear materials or technologies are being bought or stolen from private companies or when nuclear states help other states to illegally develop nuclear weapons and means of delivery.


The third type is the second-tier proliferation when regional states with a different level of technological capabilities help each other to develop nuclear programmes collectively bridging gaps in their nuclear technologies.


These tree types or models are interrelated which creates a serious threat to NPT regime.


IV. Though Iran’s current programme of development of nuclear energy is being regarded as a result of Russian-Iranian agreements on cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, its foundation have been built in the times of shia. In 1957 Iran and the USA signed an agreement on use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It is important to underline that in mid 70s the US didn’t even have objections against Iran’s closed nuclear fuel cycle.


Together with the US France and Germany participated actively in cooperation with Iran in the field of nuclear energy including construction in Iran of nuclear power stations and supplies of nuclear fuel. Such agreement were signed in 1974-1977. Iranian scientists and engineers were trained in many Western counties –the USA, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Italy Switzerland, France.


After the change of regime in Iran new actors appeared on Iranian soil – China, Argentina and later in the 90s – Russia. In 1992 Russia and Iran signed n agreement on Use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes which was criticized in the West though Russia suggested that the USA and Russia should jointly analyze the question of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Washington rejected this proposal.


Russia’s position on cooperation with Iran is defined by two main factors. First, Iran is a big Islamic state, regional leader, located close to Russian borders. Positions of Russia and Iran coincide or are very close on many political issues like Chechnya, Central Asia, Turkey’s role and the US military intervention in Iraq. Iran is Russia’s important partner after China and India in the market of arms trade. Second, Russia understands Iran’s ambitions to become an industrial state equipped with high technologies including its energy sector. At the same time Russia is strongly against any possibility for Iran to develop a nuclear-weapon option which is being regarded as a threat for Russia’s national security.

Analysis of the Russia–Iran cooperation in the field of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes says that the partners develop only those projects that are not related to the programmes of critical nuclear production. Such cooperation plays a very significant role in the bilateral relations and gives Russia certain leverage of political influence over Iran. It is also important for Russia from economic point of view since construction of only the first nuclear energy block gives Russia about 800 mln USD. According to some estimates the contract on the Busher nuclear power station involves 300 Russian enterprises and helps to maintain 20 000 labor places which is important as an addition to Rosatom’s budget. From the legal point of view the Russia-Iran cooperation in the nuclear field doesn’t violate any of NPT provisions or IAEA regulations.


Nonetheless the international community is concerned about Iran’s uranium enrichment programme and there are continuing questions about Iran’s past and current nuclear activities including its cooperation with Russia. But regardless of these suspicions one cannot claim that Iran possesses nuclear material or arms.  Many countries – Japan, Germany, Netherlands, Argentina, Brazil – have the enrichment programmes and technologies of separation of plutonium. Generally speaking this problem is related to “holes” in NPT regime and goes far beyond Iran. According to the recent UN report, today almost 60 states currently operate or constructing nuclear power or research reactors, and at least 40 possess the industrial and scientific infrastructure to enable them, if they chose, to build nuclear weapons at relatively short notice if the legal and normative constraints of the NPT regime no longer applied.  So, in the case of Iran, it is not so much the question of nuclear technologies as such but rather that of the nature of regime. The absence of domestic consensus in Iran on nuclear military capability continues to obscure the situation.


Russia’s withdrawal from Iranian nuclear sector under the US pressures would deal a heavy blow to Russia’s international prestige and undermine her positions as a reliable partner. Russia proceeds from the understanding that part of the concerns of the international community with regard to Iran‘s nuclear programmes can be lifted with the help of IAEA, other problems like elements of full fuel cycle should be resolved through negotiations with Iran. Here Russia’s position is much closer to the that of the EU troika which hopes to fashion an agreement with Iran based on the Libyan model than to the threatening position of the US.


V. There can be two solutions of the so-called Iranian question. The first one is bilateral. Iran continues its nuclear programmes. Russia guarantees supplies of nuclear fuel for Busher under the condition of inexpensive retrieval of spent fuel. Iran ratifies the Model Additional Protocol which should be recognized as the new standard for IAEA safeguards.


The second solution is international. In the framework of the international cooperation with Russia, EU and the US Iran freezes its nuclear activities except Busher. An international consortium provides Iran with nuclear fuel under the condition of inexpensive retrieval of spent fuel. Iran is offered trade, investment, technology, support for WTO membership and a regional security forum. In its turn Iran ratifies the Model Additional Protocol and agrees to comply with IAEA demands. Beyond this, Iran will eliminate all nuclear technologies illegally imported from Pakistan under the IAEA control. Undoubtedly the second option is the best one but it would require from the US total rethinking of its previous policy.

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